Following the long section known as the Great Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48), the Sermon on the Mount shifts to the subject of personal piety. Matthew 6:1-18 deals with the practices of the life of devotion. Verses 19-34 address the question of security sought through money. Matthew 7:1-12 then shifts the focus to personal relationships.
The Life of Devotion - Matthew 6:1-18
This section begins with an introductory sentence in verse 1 and then is divided into three parts. Verses 2-4 deal with almsgiving. Verses 5-15 treat prayer and verses 16-18 discuss fasting. The three sections are marked by a common structure of phrases. Each section begins with the phrase, "And whenever you [verb #1] do not [verb #2] as the hypocrites do in order that they might be seen by men. The conclusion of each section has this, "But you, when you [verb #1] [instructions] in order that your [noun #1] might be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." The three-fold repetition of this pattern was characteristic of oral teaching. It was one of the ways good teachers like Jesus and Matthew made it easier to remember great amounts of material.
Verse 1 is the introductory sentence to the whole section on the life of devotion. It warns the listeners/readers to make sure they are not "doing their righteousness" in front of people in order to be seen by them. Not all the modern versions use the word "righteousness" in their translation of verse 1, but it is important to know that is the word in the original text. This use of the word "righteousness" for activities like almsgiving, prayer, and fasting was common Jewish practice. However, it is more important to note the connection between this use of righteousness and Matthew 5:20. There Jesus had warned that those whose righteousness was not superior to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees would not enter the kingdom. The antitheses provide an example of how Christian righteousness could exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew 6:1-18 provide another example. Acts of righteousness that are done to be seen by people are no longer righteous.
The final part of verse 1 states that if acts of righteousness are done to be seen there will be no reward from God. The language of "reward" is similar to that used by some branches of Judaism at the time of Christ. As such it would communicate with Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience. However, we should be avoid an overly literal understanding of the concept of reward. The reward that God gives may simply be right standing with himself rather than material blessings.
Christian readers of the Sermon should be careful at this point that they not understand Jesus to be attacking the religion of Judaism and upholding Christianity as a religion. Jesus is attacking hypocrisy whether practiced by Jews or Christians. He enjoins genuine piety by both Jews and Christians. Matthew would not have included this material in his gospel if he had not thought that hypocrisy was a problem in the early church. The purpose of Matthew 6:1-18 is not to provide us with ammunition to attack other people. Its purpose is to provide a mirror by which we may examine our own motivations in our devotional life.
Almsgiving - Matthew 6:2-4
The Greek word for the act of righteousness in verses 2-4 literally and generally meant "mercy" or "merciful deed." However, it was also regularly used with the more specialized meaning of almsgiving or welfare. We might call it compassionate ministry. It is difficult for some modern, American evangelicals to understand the importance of this activity. Medical science was still very much at the stage of superstition. There was no government programs for welfare. Many children became blind shortly after birth because of the lack of medicine. There was no help for any disability or deformity. Begging was the only way handicapped persons could support themselves. Unless the population was merciful and generous in their giving to the beggars hundreds of children and adults would have starved to death. Judaism believed that God cared for these people and that the appropriate response to God’s goodness in their own lives was to give alms to such people.
Notice that Jesus does not contradict this Jewish practice. In fact, he commands it in verse 3. What Jesus objected to was providing such alms with the purpose of being seen and praised by others. Scholars debate whether the expression "sound a trumpet" when giving alms was an exaggerated figure of speech or a literal practice. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether there were Jews who actually blew a trumpet to signal their piety or not. The point is quite clear. Drawing public attention to one’s merciful deeds is hypocrisy. The goal becomes the attention, not the compassion.
Jesus makes a fascinating statement at the end of verse 2. When persons do acts of mercy in order to be seen their reward will consist of being seen. Matthew uses a Greek word that is usually translated, "they have their reward [in full]." That Greek word was found written over hundred of papyrus bills found in excavations in Egypt. It obviously meant "paid in full." What a picturesque expression. When people are merciful to be seen God stamps "paid in full" on their account and there is no further reward from him.
We must be careful that we do not respond to this serious warning by condemning or avoiding merciful deeds. Jesus assumes that his followers will continue to do merciful deeds. What verses 3-4 say is that almsgiving is to be done and it is to be done in secret so that no mixed motives of being seen by people can intrude into the life of righteousness.
Prayer - Matthew 6:5-15
The section on prayer has four sections. Verses 5-6 are parallel to verses 2-4 on almsgiving. Verses 7-8 give further comments on prayer. Verses 9-13 contain what is popularly called "The Lord’s Prayer." Verses 14-15 conclude the section with further comments on forgiveness.
Verses 5-6 contain the repeated pattern of phrases applied to prayer. The practice of prayer that is condemned is public prayer in the synagogues and on street corners done with the purpose of being seen. Approved prayer is done in secret in one’s inner room. The issue at stake is praying in order to be seen (or better heard) by others. This is not an indictment of public prayer. We will always need public prayers that articulate the worship of all God’s gathered people. However, the temptation for people praying in public is always to listen to their own prayers and think about how they sound to others. We also need to guard against an over literalistic interpretation of the inner room. Most of the homes of Matthew’s readers were one room houses that had no "inner" or private room. It is the principle of praying to God rather than praying for some other audience that is important.
Verses 7-8 break away from the three-fold pattern of instruction on righteousness. They provide another example of prayer to be avoided. Piling up empty phrases and babbling like the Gentiles do is condemned. Again we need to guard against over literalistic interpretation. Jews (and Christians) repeat expressions in their prayers also. (Some patterns of repetition are annoying to sensitive listeners but that is not what Jesus was condemning.) The problem Jesus was attacking was the concept of manipulating God with the right phrases. Primitive religions try to manipulate their deity by magical phrases and chants. Such an approach is ignorant of God’s nature. He knows our need before we ask as verse 8 points out and his love for us is committed to bringing what is best into our lives. We do not have to persuade God to do something good for us, nor will the right phrases (in Jesus’ name for example) accomplish that goal.
The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the best known prayer found in Scripture. A somewhat shorter version of this prayer also appears in Luke 11:3-4. The early Christian writing called the Didache also contains the Lord’s Prayer in 8:2 in a form almost identical to that of Matthew. Most scholars have concluded that Luke’s version of the prayer is more likely closest to what Jesus would have actually said. This is possible, but by no means certain. It is clear that Matthew’s version is designed to be used in worship by the community of faith. We can tell this by the use of the plurals, "our," "us," and "we."
The prayer divides into two main sections. The first three petitions deal with the relationship with God of the one who is praying. The Greek text of the prayer places all three of these petitions in the form of a third person imperative: your name must be hallowed, your kingdom must come, and your will must be done. The next four petitions are formed with second person imperatives or direct commands. These last four petitions deal with the life on earth of the one who is praying.
The first petition calls for the holiness of God’s name. Ezekiel 36 16-32 provides helpful background for understanding what is at stake in the sanctity of God’s name. With the voice of the prophet God accuses Israel of profaning his name by means of their sins. Their disobedience has brought disrepute upon God. He then pledges to sanctify (the same verb as is translated hallow) his name by restoring Israel. Their return to the land and the purification of their hearts and lives would bring honor and repute to God’s name. Obviously, the way God’s name will be hallowed will be by the changed and holy lives of his people. The second and third petitions interpret each other. God’s kingdom comes when his will is done on earth in the same way it is done in heaven.
Though the word translated "daily" may be understood in several ways the main point of the fourth petition is clear. The worshipper calls on God to supply his or her physical needs. That Jesus would include this petition shows that he wants us to bring our material needs to God in prayer. The fifth petition is the only one that is conditional. The amplification in verses 14-15 makes this even clearer. Forgiveness from God will be forfeited if we refuse to forgive those who have offended us. This theme will be developed at greater length in Matthew 18. The final two petitions envision the terrible pressures of end-times persecution. The prayer is that God will not bring the believer into such terrible testing and that he will deliver us from the evil one.
Readers of most modern versions will notice that those versions lack the final benediction, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen." These words are missing in the oldest and best manuscripts of Matthew (though they are found in the oldest copies of the Didache). They are also absent in the best copies of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. This does not mean that we are in error to pray those words. All Jewish prayers concluded with a benediction of that type. It would not have been necessary to Jesus to have told the disciples to use such a benediction, nor for Matthew to have written it. From the earliest time believers obeyed Jesus by praying this prayer, the benediction would have been part of it. Eventually, when Matthew was being copied in the Gentile world some scribe added the words that the church had always used to conclude the prayer.
Fasting - Matthew 6:16-18
The final part of the "righteousness" section deals with fasting. These verses once again follow the pattern of phrases found in verses 2-4 on almsgiving and in verses 5-6 on prayer. The point of contrast is between making it clear that one is fasting by one’s disheveled appearance or by appearing normal so no one else knows about the fast. Various ancient documents suggest that many Jews fasted regularly on Mondays and Thursdays to express their devotion. Didache 8:1 commands Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to be distinguished from the Jews. (This practice was the origin of the tradition that Roman Catholics have of eating fish on Fridays.)
At this point the humor of Jesus (and Matthew) shows through. Jews occasionally fasted for long periods of time (ten to forty days). The physical changes in a person’s appearance could not help but be noticed. However, to fast one day will cause no gaunt or haggard looks. Jesus gently (?) poked fun at people who fasted one day and then used make up so it would look as if they had fasted for many days. If their goal is being noticed for fasting, they will be paid in full when they are noticed.
The tendency toward self-indulgence by so many modern American Christians causes us to miss an important point. Jesus (and Matthew) assumes that his followers will fast. The point is not whether or not to fast, but how to fast so that no one else knows you are doing it. Few of us use make up to accomplish our hypocrisy. Rather, the testimony service provides us the opportunity to casually mention that we have been fasting. When we do, God pulls out his stamp in heaven and marks, "Paid in full."
No Security in Money - Matthew 6:19-34
Matthew 6:19-34 has two main sections and the issue of money and security are prominent in both sections. The first section, verses 19-24, has three parts, with the first and last focusing on money and security. The second section, verses 25-34, consists of poetic symbolism about trusting God and a concluding summary.
Verses 19-21 are built around a saying against storing up treasures on earth. Jesus notes that both the natural process of decay and human greed make it impossible to keep our material treasures secure. However, it is possible to create spiritual treasures that never decay and tempt no one to steal them. Jesus did not specify what constituted "treasures in heaven" because the concept was familiar in Judaism. It is the concluding statement in verse 21 that move us to the heart of the issue. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." In fact, it is hard to know which phrase belongs first. It is also true that where your heart is you will also find your treasure. We can talk about treasures in heaven, but if the energizing love of our life is our car, then our heart is in the car and not in heaven. We can talk about a heart for God, but if the investment of our time, money, and energy is given to our career, then the career is our treasure, not God or heaven. Our lips can say what we wish, but our heart will be revealed by what we treasure.
The second part of this section, verses 22-23, seem to go in another direction at first. They speak of the eye as the lamp of the body. Ancient people did not think of light entering the eye from outside, but rather of light coming out of one’s eye like a lamp. These verses probably should be understood in relation to the Hebrew text of Proverbs 22:9; 23:6; and 28:22. Modern versions drastically paraphrase these verses. The King James Version comes closest to the Hebrew text. Proverbs 28:22 describes the person who chases wealth as having an "evil eye." Proverbs 23:6 advises against eating the food of a person with "an evil eye." That person is stingy and will not want to share. Proverbs 22:9 blesses the person with a good or "bountiful eye" because that person will share with the poor. Thus, when Jesus refers to the "healthy eye" or the "single eye" in Matthew 6:22 he is, no doubt, speaking of a generous person. Verse 23 speaks of the light within you being darkness which would be the equivalent of an "evil eye," that is to say, a stingy person who hates to give. Thus, verses 22-23 call on the believer to be generous because she or he understands that the true source of security is not wealth, but God.
Verse 24 draws the conclusion. You can serve two masters, God and "mammon." "Mammon" is a transliteration of a Hebrew participle that literally means, "that in which one trusts." What one trusts in is one’s security. The conclusion is that you can trust both God and a material source of security. Ultimately, your trust can only be placed in one of those two options. This is a very difficult truth for American Christians to embrace.
Verses 25-34 comprise the second section of this material. It may be the most powerful text on trusting God in the entire Bible. Perhaps it is the figurative or poetic language that gives this passage part of its power. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field provide the illustration of God’s providential care. There is no evidence that birds or lilies worry or fret about their future yet God provides what they need. Jesus appeals to the Jewish argument from a lesser case to a greater one. If birds and lilies can trust God to provide all their needs - insignificant as birds and lilies are - how much more human beings who are the most valued creation of God should be able to trust him to provide for their needs. Even more, believers should trust God since he has invested even more love and relationship into them.
Jesus’ illustration ignores the back that many birds die each year and the lilies will not last for more than a few months. Those truths are not the point of comparison for the figure of speech. Verse 33 provides the positive conclusion that Jesus and Matthew wish us to come to. If we will seek the sovereign rule of God above every other reality and source of security we will discover God taking care of all our needs. Verse 34 gives the negative conclusion. Do not worry about tomorrow. Worrying about it will not change it. Only trusting God will securely care for tomorrow.
Relating to Others - Matthew 7:1-14
There are four parts to this section of Matthew. Verses 1-6 deal with judging others. Verses 7-11 provide teaching on prayer. Verse 12 is the Golden Rule and verses 13-14 contain the sayings about the narrow and wide gates.
The section on judging has immediate appeal. Most readers can see the value of other people following this teaching. We all prefer that others not judge us. It is more difficult for us to avoid the activity of judging. The content of verses 2-5 show that Jesus did not intend that we never evaluate or criticize the harmful behavior of others. Verse 2 states that we will be judged on the same basis that we judge. This is similar to Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. We receive forgiveness from God in the degree to which we forgive others. Verse 2 is a call to judge objectively and fairly. If we will judge others that way we will be judged fairly and objectively. Our tendency is to magnify the faults of others and minimize our own. Jesus points that out with the delightful joke about the splinter and the log. (One writer calls it a cartoon.) If we were as interested in putting our own house in order as we are in fixing other people’s problems we might be better qualified to help with their problems.
Verses 7-11 teach God’s generosity. At first we might conclude that we can ask, seek, and knock for help from other people in the community faith, people who have the log out of their eye. However, the word "ask" in verse 7 and verse 11 joins the whole paragraph together with verse 11. This is another argument from the lesser case to the greater. Jesus begins with the assumption of normal, healthy fathers who would give their children bread and fish if they possibly could. If human fathers (the lesser case) generously want to provide their child’s every need, how much more will God (the greater case) be even more generous when his children ask him for something.
The Golden Rule in verse 12 (doing to others as you wish they would do to you) is presented as the summation of all the law and the prophets. This reference to the law and the prophets brings to an end the various ways Jesus has been showing how he fulfilled the law and the prophets instead of destroying them as he stated in Matthew 5:17. The Golden Rule summarizes all Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. That fact gives great content to the Golden Rule
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 6:1-7:14. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in Matthew 6:1-7:14 that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you identify the areas of your life that need to change for you to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness more than anything else.
Second Day: Read Matthew 7:14-29. Now focus on Matthew 7:15-23.
1. How do verses 16-20 enable a person to fulfill the command in verse 15 to beware of false prophets? Have you ever known a person whose life showed him or her to be a false prophet? How did you discover that?
2. Paraphrase verses 21-23 in your own words. What kinds of ministry might people do today thinking that they would be saved if they did such things? What religious activities most tempt you to cover over your lack of obedience?
3. How do the two paragraphs of this section (verses 15-20 and verses 21-23) illustrate the instructions of verses 13-14?
Third Day: Read Matthew 7:13-29. Focus in on Matthew 7:23-29.
1. If you had only verse 24 and verse 26 what would be the key concept distinguishing the wise man and the foolish man? Why does obedience make one wise and disobedience make one foolish?
2. What are some examples of obedience in your life or the life of someone you know that created a firm foundation that was not shaken by the storms of life? What kinds of storms did this foundation survive?
3. What was the reaction of the crowds to the Sermon on the Mount? What made the biggest impression on them? What has made the biggest impression on you from the Sermon? Why?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 8:1-34. Focus your attention on Matthew 8:1-13.
1. In the story of the healing of the leper in verses 1-4, what is the most impressive part of Jesus’ response to the leper? Why do you find that most impressive? How does it apply to you?
2. The centurion described in the story found in verses 5-13 described himself as "unworthy." What circumstances of his life might have led him to that conclusion? What in your life leads you to conclude that you might be unworthy? What could God do to affirm your worth to you?
3. What was it about the centurion’s response that caused Jesus to commend his faith? What problems or difficulties in your life could be solved if you had that kind of faith?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 8:1-34. Now focus in on Matthew 8:14-27.
1. What was the response of Peter’s mother-in-law when she was healed? In what way is her response an example for the way we should respond to the various blessing Jesus grants to us?
2. Verse 17 quotes from Isaiah 53:4. Read Isaiah 53. What other verses in Isaiah 53 seem to relate to what you know of Jesus?
3. How do you respond to Jesus’ response in verse 22 to the would-be disciple? Are Jesus’ words appropriate? How can you understand his response in meaningful way?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 8:1-34. Now focus on Matthew 8:18-34.
1. In what way does the issue of Jesus’ authority enter into each of the paragraphs: verses 18-22, verses 23-27, and verses 28-34? In what way the issue of Jesus’ authority impact your life?
2. Was Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples in verse 26 fair? On what basis should they have not been afraid during the storm? What are some of the storms of life that have attacked your faith? How have you overcome or how are you overcoming those obstacles to genuine faith in your life?
3. Did Jesus do a "good thing" or a "bad thing" when he sent the demons into the herd of pigs? Give evidence in support of your answer. What do you think is the best evidence supporting his action? Why?