Matthew 6:2-4,  hypocrites and their charity

6:2 Therefore when you do merciful deeds, don’t sound a trumpet before yourself, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may get glory from men. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:3 But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does,
6:4 so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

(Matt 6:2-4 WEB)

Reflections on doing mercy

Matt 6:1 set the stage by introducing us, through the example of Abraham’s experience,  to the idea that those who do what is right in the eyes of their Heavenly Father, are those who qualify for His reward. Having reminded us that there is no divine reward for self-motivated righteousness (in Matt 6:1) the Sermon now begins to discuss three spiritual disciplines, giving, praying, and fasting, that have been called, by some, the three pillars of Christian piety. As we explore what Jesus has to say in Matt 6:2-4, we shall find that Jesus had far from finished drawing on the patriarch’s experience to illustrated how a true son of the Heavenly Father should behave.

Jesus tackles the three topics in a very structured way. He introduces the behaviour of hypocrites, concludes that they have already been rewarded, then contrasts this by setting out the behaviour God expects from humanity, concluding that it will be rewarded. In each section the concluding phrase is more-or-less the same, for the hypocrites “Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matt 6:2 WEB), and for the faithful, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt 6:4 WEB).

As the Sermon is still dealing with the overall topic of bearing false witness against your neighbour, it comes as no surprise to find merciful deeds as the first-mentioned of the disciplines. The word translated as merciful deeds, derives from that for mercy and, as Psalm 23 declared that the one who does not swear falsely against his neighbour will receive mercy from God, to be like your Heavenly Father is to be merciful. A more literal translation of the phrase would be do mercy.

Doing mercy might well include charitable gifts to the needy, as the Greek is often used in connection with such gifts, but there is clear evidence in these verses (as explained below) that Jesus was thinking, if not speaking, in Hebrew. It was therefore the meaning of the Greek phrase’s Hebrew equivalent that he had in mind. That knowledge makes it clearer what was intended, for, in the Hebrew, this word is particularly associated with oath-bound agreements in which the two parties agreed to deal mercifully with one another (included amongst them being the Mosaic covenant between Israel and God). Under such an agreement, should one party experience poverty the other would relieve it, on the understanding that, were the roles reversed, they would be treated in like manner. But dealing mercifully seems to have implied more than just providing charitable aid, it extended to how the parties treated one another at other times as well, how they did business together, helped one another, and protected one another. If one performed a merciful deed, then it was culturally expected that the party on the receiving end ought to reciprocate should they ever be in a position to do so. The first Biblical reference to such merciful deeds is found when Abraham is called upon by Abimelech to swear a covenant, not to deal falsely with him, but to deal mercifully with him as he had dealt with the patriarch. This incident illustrated an important point about doing mercy and how it differs from giving charity. Both Abraham and Abimelech were relatively wealthy and successful, by the standards of their time. In their day, and subsequently, doing mercy was not something that one only did for the poor.

Who did Jesus mean when he spoke of hypocrites? Our English word, which transliterates the Greek, is used so frequently that the majority of English speakers assume they know. But the Septuagint (the Greek translation used in Jesus’ time) only uses the word hypocrite twice, but on both occasions it translates a Hebrew term that is often translated not as hypocrite, but as godless, a word that conjures up a very different set of ideas.  The term is first mentioned, according to the Jewish ordering of the books, in Psalm 35, where David uses it to describe people who have turned on him as malicious witnesses, even though he has behaved toward them with mercy, fasted for them, and prayed for them when they were sick. Elsewhere, this term is used for godless people most often in Job, where we discover that hypocrites follow the ways of those who forget God, that they are like plants that flourish in the damp but that shrivel in a drought (specifically papyrus reeds), and that they occupy houses that will not stand. Thus, in Job's statements about these godless people, we find the Sermon returning to its pre-occupation with choosing the right way, together with a first hint of a couple of concepts that will come to the fore in later verses. The behaviour of those papyrus reeds is significant as well, for they are said to exult triumphantly, i.e. grow rapidly to a great size, but we will come back to that.

When you do mercy, don’t sound trumpets before you, says Jesus, but was it a merciful action in itself that he had in mind? Or was  the Abraham-like act of entering a do-mercy-style arrangement, effectively an informal (or formal) treaty of mutual benefit with another party, that merited the blowing of trumpets? Within Judaism, the Mosaic law proscribed several uses for trumpets, so assuming that these hypocrites were not moving camps or commanding armies, the function of the trumpets was probably to summon the entire congregation, or at least those elders responsible for it. Looking at where the trumpets were sounded confirms this view. Synagogue was the term used by the Septuagint for the congregation of Israel, but what Matt 6:2 meant by streets is less obvious, for the Greek word used here described a narrow street or alley. The wisdom teacher Sirach portrayed such places as the sort where sleazy things went on, and into which respectable people didn't venture. The sole reference to this word amongst the Septuagint’s translations of the biblical books, however, translates a Hebrew word with a very different meaning. Thanks to Isaiah 15:3 we know that, what the Greek calls ‘narrow street’, was used of the meeting place, usually a town square or plaza, in which civic business was conducted. The translator was probably being ironic, for the centre of civic power should represent the narrow way of godliness, but that in Isaiah was a place of corruption. Never-the-less a civic centre was just the sort of place a trumpet would summon the elders to. Here then, is a nice piece of internal evidence that the Sermon was conceived in Hebrew (or the closely related Aramaic), and for the benefit of an audience with Jewish roots.

Both synagogue and the 'narrow street,' describe places where formal business was, in biblical times, convened using a trumpet system. As such, the blowing of trumpets, as much as where they were blown, would seem to suggest that doing mercy referred to entering into an agreement, rather than just an attempt to declare 'look how pious I am.'

Jesus not only tells us what these hypocrites were doing, he also tells us why they were doing it. The Greek word is a fairly common one for the activity of praising someone, but, once again, attention to the Septuagint’s earliest use of it pays a dividend. It occurs in Exodus 15, where it translates a rarely used Hebrew word. In Exodus it expresses how God triumphed gloriously over the Egyptians, in Ezekiel it is used of a river that has swollen to the point where it cannot be overcome, and in Job 8:11-13 it is used to likens the way of the hypocrite to the rapid, overwhelming, growth of papyrus before drought cuts it down. Such hypocrites want to rise rapidly to the point where it seems that nobody can challenge them, they are prepared to say whatever is neccessary in order to make that happen, and they don't care whose back they use as a stepping stone.

Truly, says Jesus, these hypocrites, who gave their word to honour relationships of peace and mutual support, but only wanted them as stepping stones for their own advancement, have received their reward. Jesus is emphatic, and he adopts a traditional way of showing it, by prefixing his statement with amen. But, in the Greek, as in most English translations, his statement looses some of its force, as, with both passages using the same word for reward, this statement appears to be somewhat contradicted by its preceding verse. The comments on Matt 6:1 introduced the Hebrew languages several types of reward. So, as Matt 6:1 clearly referred to sakar, so this verse must have the other, peullah, in mind. Whilst sakar expressed the idea of reward from God, peullah expressed the idea of reward obtained through human activity. Matt 6:1 appears to reflect the use of the former, Matt 6:2 the use of the latter. 

So, if the hypocrites demonstrate how not to do mercy, then what should one make of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples. Note first that he does not say if you do mercy, but rather when you do mercy. Doing mercy was an expectation rather than an option. Jesus’ advice is literally "do not let you the left know what you the right is doing," no hands are mentioned, but early translators thought this was inferred and later translations have followed their lead. If left and right do refer to hands, then the statement must be either figurative or hyperbolic, for without sawing the brain in half each hand must be aware of what the other does. If hyperbolic then the phrase expresses the need for an absolute secrecy, whilst if figurative then the implication is that the hands represent people acting as agents. Absolute secrecy does not seem to sit particularly well with the whole concept of doing mercy, which was, by its very nature, intended as a reciprocal act. Nor would most disciples have the luxury of agents to act for them. Another option is desirable, and happily there is a biblical passage that seems to provide it.

Knowing that Matt 6:2-4 is about doing mercy, that Jesus has been referencing the life of Abraham, and that the context of Abraham and Abimelech's agreement to do mercy was conflict over resources, the resolution of a similar issue between Abraham and Lot demands to be considered. The first time the Bible mentions both left and right is when Abraham and Lot realise that the land is not big enough for both their flocks. They then agree that to resolve the matter amicably one will go left and one right. Drawn by the apparent success of Sodom, Lot chooses to head south, leaving Abraham in the north near Hebron. Later the Bible identifies south with left and north with right, and, perhaps inspired by the experience of Abraham and Lot, foolishness with left and wisdom with right. Thus, there may be a sense here of left representing the foolish and right the wise. But it perhaps makes more sense here if left and right are simply identifying the relative roles, Lot (the left) being the recipient of Abraham (the right) doing mercy. If that is the case, then Jesus' teaching requires that any mercy done should be without the recipient knowing the human origin of it, and therefore without any sense of obligation to return the favour. I.e. our merciful deeds should have no strings attached. Such an interpretation is in keeping with the subsequent statement that it should be in secret.

The word used here for secret has the same root as the English word cryptic, so carries more of the sense of something hidden. It reminds us of the agreement made between Jacob and Laban, that resolved the dispute over Jacob's reward, and in which the Lord was asked to watch over the agreement even when they were hidden from one another.

For the disciple who follows Jesus’ advice, the Sermon assures them "your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly." The reward mentioned here is different again to that in verses two and three. It is tesallem (Greek apodidomai), the reward of having accomplished something in a proper or legally correct manner. The completion of Solomon’s temple resulted in tesallem, as did the finalizing of Nehemiah’s wall. The three other times the word is used it concerns the correct fulfilment of vows.

That God, being omniscient, sees everything is familiar territory for those who know their Hebrew Bible. They may be familiar with the divine name, El Roi, the God who sees. Again this comes from the life of Abraham at a point when God re-iterated the patriarch's reward, with the name El Roi given by Hagar after she encountered the Angel of the Lord in the wilderness and perceived that He knew her situation. 

The idea that God sees the hidden is also found in Psalm 10, where the psalmist complains at the behaviour of the wicked, who covertly act against the interests of others, all the while claiming that God will not see them. Though their way appears to be prospering, the psalmist goes on to affirm that God does indeed see their hidden deeds and will reward the wicked accordingly.  Similar sentiments are found in Psalm 94 and again with the idea that the seeing of what is hidden carries a reward.

When God gives, it is usually unheralded and in secret. We don’t see the giving of gifts like fertility and plenty until we have received them, but by faith we can accept they are gifts from God. If you are seeking to please your Heavenly Father there is no need to trumpet it. God gives the gift of life secretly, in the egg, the womb or the ground, be like Him and do life-giving acts of mercy secretly. If you do mercy in ways that only God can see, then you allow Him to take the glory (if mankind will but give it), and He will reward that publicly. 

The final words 'you openly' are only present in some manuscripts and therefore only found in Bibles that give those manuscripts priority. The better evidence may suggest that it is a later addition, but, as the word used is the same one found in Deut 29:29, the debate need not concern us too much in terms of interpretation. The word describes something that is revealed, and, in Deut 29:29 God declares that the cryptic things are His, but the revealed things belong to mankind. Thus, for someone to receive it, a reward must be revealed.