Matt 6,1-18 Acts of Righteousness - Giving, Praying, Fasting (2008)

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/“Acts of Righteousness that please God”[i]/

Matt. 6:1-8; 16-18

In the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God;

and about our proper attitude in living out our faith.

Jesus addresses some of the common practices

of the devout Jews of his day

to illustrate a truth

that is relevant for us even today.

In Jewish culture there were

three main “acts of righteousness”

or “acts of piety”

that were expected of every member

of the covenant community.

Every devout Jew was expected to be a righteous person…

to be a “tzedakah”(heb.)

or in greek to be a “diakosunay”…

a “righteous one”.

Piety and devotion to God were expressed primarily

through almsgiving, prayer, and fasting,

and certainly a number of other spiritual disciplines

These were the pillars of the faith.

In the Sermon on the Mount

       Jesus goes straight for the jugular,

       Pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees

       And setting a high standard for His would-be followers.

In this passage we quickly detect a common pattern,

       Which gives us some clues to the cultural context

       In which these teachings were given.

There are a number of identical key phrases

That keep repeating.

For example, the phrase,

“when you give alms…

when you pray…

when you fast…”

suggest that these were “acts of righteousness or piety”

that were done regularly.

It’s not “If you give, pray, fast, etc.”

       But “when”.

Similarly, we have a repeating pattern that identifies

       The “Who you are doing it for”.

“Be careful” who you are doing it for…


We sense Jesus is speaking about an issue

that is very important to God,

namely spiritual integrity!

We detect a subtle danger in excercising the “acts of piety”.

Our acts of piety can easily get on the slippery slope

       Toward self-glorification.

Just like many pious and devout Jews

were doing the right thing but for the wrong motive,

so we too must be on guard about our motives.

ILL.: Sometimes our generosity comes from mixed motives

As the following example illustrates: 

Along Miami's Flagler Street some vandals had cut down

six royal palms. 

Since the palms are very expensive,

Dade County authorities weren't sure if they could replace them very soon. 

But then someone donated six more

and even had them put in. 

The old ones had been about 15 feet tall

and provided a nice foreground

for a "Fly Delta" billboard. 

The new palms are 35 feet tall

completely hiding the sign. 

This was all a very nice gesture…

       Until you find out that the new donor

Is non other than Eastern Airlines.

There is always a temptation

for people of faith to show piety

in order to get something out of it…

be it praise, affirmation, and applause,

or even some other form of reward.

Consciously or sub-consciously we ask,

       “What’s in it for me?”

And, we are rightly concerned about our financial offerings.

After all, we want our money to help the poor and needy...

We ask many important and legitimate questions:

How much should we give?

To whom?

To which institutions?

To which missions and causes?

What is the right amount for our household to give?

Furthermore, we ask about the reason and attitude

that we should have when we give.

Should we give out of a sense of duty or obligation?

       after all the Bible says so,

       and we wouldn’t want to make God mad…

Or is there a higher calling

       to share the resources that God has

       so generously entrusted to us?

Jesus tells us that if we have any motive

other than seeing the smiling face of God,

who sees our secret acts of love for Him,

we are on the wrong track.

Ill.: A man moved into the small town

and bought a little house

across the street from the railroad tracks. 

Every morning he noticed an elderly lady

walking along the tracks picking up something

and putting it into a bag that she carried. 

The man got curious about this lady

and so he went to the corner "Mom & Pop" grocery store

that had been there forever

and asked the owner about this lady.

"Oh, that's the widow Jacobs. 

Every day she comes half way across town

to pick up the coal that is spilled on the tracks

when the early morning train runs through town." 

"But there hasn't been a steam locomotive

using coal on these tracks for years," replied the new resident. 

"That's right," said the store owner. 

"When the steam train stopped running,

old Mr. Simpson who runs the hardware store

was concerned that the Widow Jacobs

would no longer have coal to heat and cook with. 

He knew she was too proud to take charity,

so he decided to get up early every morning,

take a bag of coal and drop it along the tracks. 

The Widow Jacobs still thinks

the steam train runs by here every morning. 

I think Old Mr. Simpson has been doing that

for about 5 years now.”

As we take in this story

And we hear the words of Jesus about

Our “acts of righteousness”

We feel a certain tension.

In the same sermon on the Mount

where we find these teachings,

Jesus also says,

“Let your light so shine before others

that they may see your good works

and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." 

What’s up with that?

Well, I believe the key to resolving the tension lies in

       Jesus word about the rewards.

Why do we let our light shine?

What is our motivation?

What’s in it for me?

Jesus wants us to let our lights shine

With no expectation of reward from other people.

And because Hypocrisy shows very easily

we must constantly keep our motives in check.

Beware of practicing your piety before others

in order to be seen by them;

for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

The word “Reward” is a technical business term

in the Greek language

and it means “payment in full.”

For example, it refers to selling a slave

and receiving a receipt that you are paid in full.

The Gospel of Matthew likes the word, “reward.”

Matthew uses the word, “reward,” thirteen times in his gospel. John does not use the word, “reward,” at all;

Mark uses it only once;

and Luke twice.

In other words, “reward,” is a favorite word and concept

of Matthew, the tax collector… He liked rewards.

In a moment I will read a number of verses from the Gospels…

mostly Matthew,

and I invite you to think about what the verses say

about what you can expect

as a result of your dedication to God and other people.


Matthew 5:12

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,

       for in the same way they persecuted the prophets

who were before you.

Matthew 5:46

46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?

Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

Matthew 10:41

41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet

will receive a prophet's reward,

and anyone who receives a righteous man

because he is a righteous man

will receive a righteous man's reward.

Matthew 10:42

42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water

to one of these little ones because he is my disciple,

I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." 

Matthew 16:27

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory

with his angels,

and then he will reward each person

according to what he has done.

Mark 9:41

41 I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water

in my name because you belong to Christ

will certainly not lose his reward.

Luke 6:23

23 "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,

because great is your reward in heaven.

For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

Luke 6:35

35 But love your enemies, do good to them,

and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

Then your reward will be great,

and you will be sons of the Most High,

because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Matt. 6:2-3

When you give to the needy,

do not toot your horn,

as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,

so that they may be praised by others.

Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. *

3 But when you give alms,

do not let your left hand know

what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret…

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


And here is another story:

ILL.: “There was a rich Jew

who never gave alms to the poor

or contributed to charitable causes.

People in his small village never called him by name.

They simply referred to him as The Miser.

One day, a beggar came to the door of The Miser.

“Where to you come from?” The Miser asked.

“I live in the village,” answered the beggar.

“Nonsense” cried the Miser.

“Everyone in this village knows that I do not support beggars.”

In that same village, there lived a poor shoemaker.

He was a most generous man

who responded to every person in need

and every charitable cause that was brought to his attention.

No one was ever turned away empty-handed from his door.

One day The Miser died.

The village leaders decided

to bury him on the edge of the cemetery.

No one mourned his passing.

No one followed the funeral procession to the place of burial.

As the days passed,

the rabbi heard disturbing news regarding the shoemaker.

“He no longer gives alms to the beggars,”

complained one man.

“He has refused every charity that has approached him,”

declared another.

“Has anyone asked about his change?”

inquired the rabbi.

“Yes,” replied the first man.

“He says that he no longer has money to give away.”

Soon the rabbi called on the shoemaker.

“Why have you suddenly ceased giving money

to worthy causes?”

Slowly the shoemaker began to speak.

“Many years ago,

the man called “The Miser” came to me

with a huge sum of money

and asked me to distribute it to beggars and charities.

He made me promise

that I would not reveal the source of the money

until after he died.

Once every month he would visit me secretly

and give me additional money to distribute.

I became known as a great benefactor

even though I never spent a penny of my own money.

I am surprised that no one questioned me earlier.

How could anyone who earned the wages of a shoemaker

give away as much money as I have all these years?”

The rabbi called all the villagers together

and told them the story.

“The Miser has lived by the Scriptures,

keeping his charity a secret,” the rabbi told them.

Then they all walked to the grave of The Miser and prayed.

Before the rabbi died,

he asked to be buried near the fence,

next to the grave of the man known as The Miser.”

God will reward our generosity.

Do not worry about the praise and admiration

you will receive from other people for your acts of kindness.

If you do acts of kindness and generosity

in order to receive honor and glory,

then you will have received your reward and admiration

from other human beings.

You have received “your payment in full.”

In all of our acts of piety

It is the attitude of the heart that matters.

When we seek self glorification before other people

We will have our reward in full:

People will take note of our big donations to a worthy cause… They will marvel at our devotion to prayer…

And they may even envy our determination

To go a day without ice cream and chocolates.

But, that’s were it ends.

You’ve got your payment in full.

But if your true and only motivation is to please God,

       You will have the satisfaction of knowing

       That you are loved by God,

       And that, even if no person alive knows about your piety,

       God knows,

       And you’ve put a smile on God’s face.


[i] Edward Markquart in Sermons from Seattle

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