Giving Without Hypocrisy
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (6:1-4)
Matthew 5:21-48 focuses on the teaching of the law on what men believe, and 6:1-18 focuses on the practice of the law, what men do. The first section emphasizes inner moral righteousness—giving six representative illustrations regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and love. This second section emphasizes outward formal righteousness—giving three representative illustrations of religious activity. The first has to do with giving, our religion as it acts toward others (vv. 2-4); the second with praying, our religion as it acts toward God (vv. 5-15); and the third with fasting, our religion as it acts in relation to ourselves (vv. 16-18).
The Danger of False Righteousness
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. (6:1)
This verse introduces the section on the forms of religious righteousness and applies to each of the three illustrations in 6:2-18.
The story is told of an eastern ascetic holy man who covered himself with ashes as a sign of humility and regularly sat on a prominent street corner of his city. When tourists asked permission to take his picture, the mystic would rearrange his ashes to give the best image of destitution and humility.
A great deal of religion amounts to nothing more than rearranging religious "ashes" to impress the world with one's supposed humility and devotion. The problem, of course, is that the humility is a sham, and the devotion is to self, not to God. Such religion is nothing more than a game of pretense, a game at which the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day were masters. Because their religion was mostly an act, and a mockery of God's true revealed way for His people, Jesus' most blistering denunciations were reserved for them.
But they were not the original or the last hypocrites. Since the fall of man there have been hypocrites. Hypocrites are mentioned in Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. Cain was the first hypocrite, feigning worship by offering a kind of sacrifice that God did not want. When his hypocrisy was unmasked, he killed his brother Abel out of resentment (Gen. 4:5-8). Absalom hypocritically vowed allegiance to his father, King David, while plotting the overthrow of his regime (2 Sam. 15:7-10).
The supreme hypocrite was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord with a kiss. Ananias and Sapphira hypocritically claimed to have given the church all the proceeds from the sale of some property, and lost their lives for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-10).
Hypocrites are found in paganism, in Judaism, and in Christianity. There were hypocrites in the early church, the medieval church, and the Reformation church. There are still hypocrites in the church today, and Paul assures us there will be hypocrites at the end of the age. "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron" (1 Tim. 4:1-2). Hypocrisy is endemic to fallen man, an integral part of his fleshly nature. Persecution of the church helps to diminish the number of hypocrites, but even that cannot completely eliminate them.
Hypocrisy is never treated lightly in Scripture. Through Amos, God said, "I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24). All of those religious acts had been prescribed by God; but because they were performed insincerely and were not accompanied by righteous living they were not acceptable to God. The sacrifices, offerings, and songs were not given to God's glory but to the people's own glory and self-satisfaction.
Outside of idolatry, the greatest sin both in Judah and Israel was hypocritical religion. The Jews were conquered and taken into captivity in large measure because they turned true worship of God into phoney mockery. In regard to that truth Isaiah says, '"What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?' says the Lord. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats'" (Isa. 1:11). The Lord continued by declaring His displeasure also with worthless offerings, incense, new moon and sabbath festivals, and hypocritical prayers (vv. 13-15). God wanted purity and righteousness, not perfunctory rituals. "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean," He said; "remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together…. Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool" (vv. 16-18).