Matthew 6:1–18. Covert Rewards For the Believer.
Key Notes: Prayer and its uses. Public prayer. Linking prayer and fasting.The ultimate reward.
At the end of Matthew 5, Jesus left the disciples with a formidable moral challenge—to be perfect, as the Heavenly Father is perfect. In chapter 6, He moves the subject to alms-giving, prayer and fasting. The challenge is different and seems less daunting. The message is that we should do our spiritual work in secret. As always, there is more here than meets the eye. The key word is “reward”; it occurs seven times in the text.
In each of the three warnings, Jesus articulates the command by “Truly (“Amen”), I say to you….”
The word “hypocrite” meaning an actor playing a part is used in each of the three warning. In 6:1 Jesus speaks of doing our righteous deeds to be seen --“theatered”. We are not to make a show of our Christian faith.
6:1–4" Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be seen of them for then you have no reward from your Father in Heaven."
Alms—gifts for the poor—should be given in secret. That was not easy in Jesus’ time because the temple treasury box was public (Mk.12:41) and Jesus once sat and watched as the crowds of people put money into it. Showmanship (trumpets and parades) makes the practice obnoxious to God [and the godly]. Better to give privately, if necessary through an intermediary.
In practice Christians give to causes they value, a church that serves them, and friends they want to encourage. It is also hard to give away money and not receive a reward. It may be only a book for giving a gift to a radio or TV program. For large gifts there may be a Caribbean cruise or a fine party or a weekend at a luxury ranch as recognition. It may be a chair on a board of directors. And we want the gift to be tax-deductible, so that it does not cost as much as we gave. The forces in society, even Christian society, make truly God-oriented, anonymous giving difficult. We have to keep our focus on God.
6:5–15 Don’t do your prayers in public either. Pray with the interior door shut. Pray briefly (6:7), pray simply (6:8) and with forgiveness. (6:15–16). Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Part of our worship is public prayer. It is easily abused. We are more aware of the people in the room who are listening than God who may not be. We easily forget that God is the only One who is to be addressed. Prayers, especially in small groups, are used to preach sermons and summarize talks, make announcements, admonish the guilty, as well as to show the spirituality of the speaker. We are advised to speak “sentence prayers” in public to keep our praying simple. The pastoral prayer is usually one in which all may join in heartily. It praises God and asks care for the sick, joy for the newborns, concern for the ministry, for missionaries, and the Country.
The Gentiles think they will be heard for their much speaking. Rote prayer is part of many religions— Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and even Catholic. Prayer wheels, prayer beads, flags and chants are tools to increase the efficiency of prayer. The prayer wheel is inscribed with prayers and designed to catch the wind. The prayers as supposed to ascend with each turn of the wheel. Just think what you could do with a computer!
On the other hand, Jesus also taught the disciples to pray fervently and not to lose heart. (Lk.18:1–8; Lk.11:1–13). Do we know when to pray and when to stop praying? There is a time to stop.
But why pray at all? If God knows our needs before we ask, then prayer should not be necessary. I supply the needs of my family, but I love to be asked. My three-year-old boy came into my study begging “Daddy, may I have thum your nutth?” (some of your peanuts). I am still delighted thinking of it years later. Our Heavenly Father wants to be in a loving relationship with us. He wants us to talk to Him and tell Him our desires. An important part of our prayer is asking and listening to Him.
Jesus gave them an example of simple prayer. The Lord’s Prayer (really the Disciples’ Prayer) is profound, and has been studied exhaustively. He did not intend for it to be recited by rote but as a template (this is how you should pray) , although the words have been hard to improve on.
We first are privileged to address God personally—our Father-- and with due concern for His Name.
We pray for His will to be accomplished and His Kingdom consummated on earth.
Then we ask for our physical needs.
We pray forgiveness of our debts and that we may be saved from trial.
The final doxology ("For Thine is the Kingdom and the power....) is not in the original text but is universally applauded as a fitting climax.
We must forgive trespasses as we have been forgiven. The word for “debts” (6:12). in Greek is different from the word “trespasses” (6:14) . A debt is a payment not given, a sin of omission. On the other hand a trespass, or offense, is a sin of commission, an intrusion into another person’s territory, a more serious sin than omitting a payment. We need to forgive others who owe us things, that God may forgive us for the things we owe Him. Jesus extends the forgiveness: we must forgive those who have offended us so that God may forgive us for offending Him.
Some think that setting a condition for forgiveness is legalistic thinking or at least pre-atonement thinking. Under the atonement, then, all is forgiven without exception. But Jesus is the Lord, the personal Author of the Law. We had better listen carefully. (Heb.12:25). And the New Testament further confirms His word.
“…forgiving one another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col.3:13)
“…forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. “ (Eph.4:32)
A good tree must bear good fruit, and forgiveness is the fruit of a good tree.
The third prohibition is against making a display of suffering while fasting. Isaiah attacked fasting that is done without attention to justice and said it was useless. (Isa.58). Zechariah criticized fasting that was merely mourning over the long-ago destruction of Jerusalem. (Zech.7,8). In neither case of fasting was God primary in their thinking.
People who fast for Lent often let it be known that they have given up chewing gum or eating meat. Are we fasting to lose weight?
The expression “your Father” occurs seven times as does the word “reward.” Jesus’ intent is that we receive a reward from our loving Father. The idea of reward---or punishment---as an incentive for our spiritual work is disliked, almost taboo. We should serve the Father for love, not for fear or favor, some say. Never mind if Jesus did offer us a reward. Shall we ignore it? Was it for OT people, since the Sermon on the Mount occurs before the Cross and Pentecost? But Paul also expects reward for his work and rewards are offered to the churches of Revelation.
Because the concept of reward is not well received in Christian circles, we struggle to define reward and make use of its meaning. One way to approach the question is to look for “reward stories”—examples from the lives of OT and NT people. The Bible is full of reward stories, stories of people who had a spiritual objective, worked hard to achieve it, and could see the fulfillment. Some of these are summarized in Heb. 11. But some of them did not receive any immediate reward.
Noah built a ship, as big as the Queen Mary, on dry land, and saved himself and seven others from death.
Moses left Egypt, learned to be a shepherd and herded Israel to safety through a desert.
Ruth attached herself to Naomi and the God of Israel, labored to feed herself and Naomi, won a husband and a place in the genealogy of the Messiah.
Rahab protected the spies and found herself a place in Israel’s future.
David suffered for years under Saul until the Lord awarded him the crown.
Esther persevered in the court of Persia and saved her people from genocide.
Daniel and his young friends triumphed over a ruthless emperor.
Peter won 3000 souls on the Day of Pentecost.
Jesus won the ultimate reward, “eternal redemption” Heb.9:12 and is seated at the Father’s right hand. Heb.1:3.
The crown is a metaphor for reward given in the NT. These rewards are for eternity.
“...the crown of righteousness....” II Tim.4:8, “...the crown of life Jm.1:12, “the unfading crown of glory” IPet.5:4
Paul’s crown is also temporal, the people he has won and discipled.
“…my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown….” Phil.4:1
“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” I Thes.2:19–20
So the issue is not whether there are rewards, but whether we will receive them. If we look at the three works Jesus discusses, we might ask what they are intended to accomplish? Alms-giving is intended for the care of the poor, and may be extended to include healing, social work and philanthropy. Prayer is often linked with fasting in Scripture to intensify prayer.
Esther [ ?prayed] and fasted before addressing the king. Est.4:16
Nehemiah fasted and prayed in mourning over the exiles, and in hope of helping them. Neh.1:4
David fasted and prayed for the life of his infant son. IISam.12:16–17
Jesus said fasting and prayer was necessary to accomplish difficult healing. Matt.17:21
The church at Antioch fasted and prayed before sending out Paul and Barnabas. Acts.13:3
So let us link alms-giving with prayer and fasting and ask what they might be intended to do together. They pull together two resources, our material goods and God’s power. We may think of them as a power package for accomplishing the work of God for the poor, the sick, the lost, the prisoners. It is all done very quietly. One can be quite introverted and awkward socially and have a secret and powerful ministry for God. For some Christians, prayer and fasting may be an important component of their ministry. George Mueller was a godly man who ran an orphanage in Britain without ever publicly appealing for funds. He prayed fervently and God supplied their needs.
What is God’s will for us in His Kingdom? Our salvation and sanctification are only the beginning. We should not think of ourselves merely as plants growing. There are races to be run. There are mountains to be pushed into the sea. Jesus sent out his disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead and preach the Kingdom. (Matt.10:7,8). That is work worthy of reward.
So we are given a choice. Who shall we work for?
We can work for accolades from the church, behaving like actors in a show. “Verily, they have their reward.” That may get us social approval but the Lord’s rejection.
We can work for God’s approval. We may not see any community recognition and we may be ignored or even considered deranged.
Criticisms of Christian work can be distracting.
“I am against proselytizing.”
“When are you going to a real job?”
“Do you mean you are going to beg?”
“These people will never give you anything back.”
“When you are old you’re not going to have any friends.”
“Why waste your life?”
I want to hear Jesus say “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”