Christianity Without Hypocrisy (1)
Jesus has described the incredibly high standard of righteousness required of those who would be his disciples: (1) explaining that it must be superior to that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, (2) describing it in six representative areas, and (3) insisting that his disciples pursue perfection, since God is perfect.
Now he moves to those outward “acts of righteousness” (Matt. 6:1), which we would call the practice of religion, and he warns of a great danger: hypocrisy. The word hypocrite (ὑποκριτής) occurs 13 times in Matt. (6:2, 5, 6; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51). It was the classical Greek word for a play actor or pretender.
There are several different kinds of hypocrisy.
In one kind, the hypocrite feigns goodness but is actually evil, like those who tried to “catch” Jesus in things he said (Matt. 22:15ff.). Such hypocrites know they are being deceptive.
In another kind of hypocrisy, the hypocrite is puffed up with his own importance and self-righteousness. Blind to his own faults, he may be genuinely unaware that he is hypocritical—even though he is very harsh toward other people and their sins. Jesus discusses such hypocrites in Matthew 7:1–5, as we shall see. We may at least comfort ourselves that onlookers readily detect this form of hypocrisy, even if the hypocrite himself remains oblivious to his own double standard.
But the kind of hypocrisy involved in Matthew 6:2 is more subtle than either of the other two. In this case, the hypocrite has talked himself into believing that at heart, he is conducting himself with the best interests of the needy in mind. He may thus be unaware of his own hypocrisy. Moreover, the needy themselves are not likely to complain; they will be touchingly grateful, and contribute to the giver’s self-delusion. And all but the most discerning of onlookers will speak appreciatively of the philanthropist’s deed, for all acknowledge that giving is good.
- T. Robertson argues that the Lord is addressing the three categories of righteous deeds that the Pharisees were very proud of: alms, prayer, and fasting (Word Pictures, I, p. 50).
In discussing them, Jesus follows the same outline: (1) a warning not to seek man’s praise, (2) an assurance that those who do will get only an earthly reward, (3) a command to perform such acts privately, and (4) a promise that God, who sees in secret, will reward the disciple openly.
- Giving to the Poor (vs. 1-4)
Jesus’ first example of religious practice is almsgiving, or giving to the poor. The biblical revelation has always held to the importance of almsgiving, of giving to needy people (Deut. 15:11; see vv. 7–11; also Exod. 23:10–11; Lev. 19:10; and Ps. 112:9).
Jesus agreed that this is a religious duty, for he is not telling us to give alms in these verses; he is assuming we will do it. What Jesus is concerned about is how the giving will be done. Will it be done to win approval from men? Is our charitable giving concerned with meeting needs and pleasing God than with earning a reputation for generosity? In the secular world, most giving is for that reason. Unfortunately, this sometimes creeps into religious circles too.
The Pharisees used almsgiving to gain favor with God and attention from men, both of which were wrong motives. They have their reward: approval from men, that’s all! (v.2b) But no amount of giving can purchase salvation; for salvation is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8–9).
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men” (6:2). Jesus called it announcing one’s gifts “with trumpets,” meaning, as we might say, that such people are “blowing their own horn.”
The trumpets may be metaphorical; philanthropy is not to be accompanied by the repulsive sound of the philanthropist blowing his own horn. But the trumpets may be literal, the trumpets of the Jerusalem temple calling the citizens together to contribute to some particularly urgent need. The opportunity for ostentation under such circumstances is quite unmatched—the trumpets sound, and I quickly close my shop and hasten down the street. Everyone knows where I’m going, and the speed at which I’m moving not only draws attention to my direction but attests to my zeal.
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (6:3–4a). It is almost as if the Master is using an overwhelming metaphor to express adequately just how quiet and private our giving ought to be. Such privacy is not itself meritorious; but it ensures that our giving is not prompted, even in part, by a love for the praise of peers. No one will know about this giving in secret; no one, that is, but God.
Does this mean that it is wrong to give openly? Must all giving be anonymous? Not necessarily, for everyone in the early church knew that Barnabas had given the income from the sale of his land (Acts 4:34–37). When the church members laid their money at the Apostles’ feet, it was not done in secret. The difference, of course, was in the motive and manner in which it was done. A contrast is Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), who tried to use their gift to make people think they were more spiritual than they really were.
The Promise: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly (v.4).
Conclusion: Hypocritical piety is not from the heart, it is not genuine; it is play-acting piety. Jesus’ disciples who are citizens of God’s kingdom must practice their religion from the heart and not for the notice, approbation, and reward of men.