Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

59. To be seen of men (Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18)*

Every man who takes his religious life seriously is in danger of taking himself too seriously. Human nature does not take kindly to the discipline of a religious life, but when in a religious environment it loves to be seen to be religious. So Jesus warns: “Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them.” The Received Text has the word “alms” here, as in the verses which follow, but (even though there is as much textual evidence for one reading as for the other) there can be no doubt that the confusion came in through failure to recognize that this introductory statement covers three of the most obvious expressions of religious duty - giving to the poor, prayer to God, and fasting. The confusion would be all the easier because the word for righteousness was so often used with the specialised meaning of “almsgiving”.

The Selfish Motive

The operative phrase is “to be seen of them” (cp. 23:5). Some, misconstruing the Lord’s instruction here have been known to hold up for condemnation any expression of Christian kindliness which has been known to others. Thus without stopping to think they censure the one they call Master and Lord, and also one of his chief apostles (Acts 20:34, 35).

But “it is the motive, and not the fact of publicity, which vitiates the action” (Plumptre). To be sure, the powers of self-deception in human nature are so subtle that it is well to err towards secrecy in activities of this sort. The whole value before God (and perhaps before man) of such good works may be cancelled out by an unworthy motive. “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not love”, says Paul (1 Cor.13:3). And by contrast the self-conscious and self-approving do-gooders exclaim: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred etc. etc... and did not minister unto thee” (Mat. 25:44). Right well such know their own worth (but not their own worthlessness).

“Otherwise”, adds Jesus, “ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven”. Did he mean no reward for this particular act of “goodness”, or no reward at all? The second of these is correct, for when Jesus said: “Do not your righteousness before men”, he used the continuous form of the verb which indicates not an isolated action but a habit of life, the posturing of a man who is always intent on having the good opinion of his fellows.


But, then, how is this warning to be reconciled with the Lord’s earlier plain instruction: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (5:16)? There is a twofold explanation. First, there is all the difference in the world as to motive. There could be no greater contrast between “glorify your Father which is in heaven” and “to be seen of men”. Also, the kind of activity contemplated is different. The context of the one suggests the imparting of instruction to those who make up the Lord’s household. (See Study 52). The
context of the other indicates a selfish appetite for the spotlight of publicity.

Sounding a Trumpet

Christ’s words about “sounding a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” are not to be taken as anything but vigorous caricature (with allusion, perhaps, to Num. 10:3, 4). Reference to the loud clinking of coins in the trumpet-shaped collection boxes in the temple court is ruled out by the mention of synagogues and streets. And the fantasy that Pharisees were in the habit of having a servant blow a blast on a trumpet to summon the poor to receive their dole is similarly eliminated by the word synagogue. The writers of books on Bible manners and customs have a lot of distortions to answer for!


The man who practises his righteousness for the sake of its effect on those who witness it is a play-actor. This is one of the meanings of the word “hypocrite” used by Jesus. And that this was the meaning intended here is shown by his phrase “to be seen of men”, for here is the word which has given birth to the English word “theatre”. The expression is marvellously apt. The religious hypocrite is a play-actor. On stage he is one kind of person. In his private life he is someone else altogether different. And the motive is the same: “to have glory of men”. There would be few professional actors, and no amateurs at all, if there were no round of ego-satisfying applause at the end of the show.

Plummer comments very pithily that these hypocrites “were not giving but buying. They wanted the praise of men, they paid for it, and they got it.” The Lord’s present tense says this: “they are receiving (now) their reward” - it is a commercial term for full payment made and receipt given (cp. Paul’s playful use of the same term in Phil. 4:18).

But this kind of posturing is seen by God as well as by men, and He does not join in the applause, because He sees not only the playacting but the motive behind it. “Ye receive honour one of another”, Jesus accused the Jewish rulers, “and seek not the honour that cometh from God only” (Jn. 5:44).

So these Pharisees had their reward. They had it, there and then (so the word implies), in the public reputation which they sought and got. And that was the end of the transaction. If they hoped also for a reward from God hereafter, they hoped in vain. To Him they were a write-off. How these men needed, for their own good, the devastating reminders of Psalm 139, all of it!

Secret Giving

This incisive negative warning made plain, Jesus turned to positive counsel: “But thou, when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” the pronoun is no longer plural but singular. Here is a discipline for each man to apply to his own way of life, according to the best patterns. The records have only one allusion to the almsgiving of Jesus (Jn. 13:29) and of Paul (Acts 20;34), but what lives of quiet purposeful beneficence are implied here!

In a number of places the Bible uses the right hand for approval and blessing, and the left for curse and condemnation (eg. Mt. 25:31-41; Gen. 48:14; Josh. 8:30-35; Ez. 4:4; Rev. 10:2). So here Jesus may have meant not only: “As much as possible avoid publicity in your almsgiving” but also: “Beware against preening yourself for your own goodness; the bad side of your inclinations will make capital out of this somehow; for the heart of man is deceitful above all things.”

One writer has put the issue very pithily: “To do alms in secret is to offer a double sacrifice.” This, after all, is God’s own method. None of His beneficent gifts in Nature obtrude the Giver; consequently it is possible for the silly cocksure atheist to enjoy all the blessings of God’s sun and rain and all the riches of a fair earth, and yet deny that He is even there.

David’s Example

When David dedicated the massive resources of his prosperous reign for the erection of the new temple in Jerusalem, his attitude of mind could hardly have been bettered. His vast generosity to the sanctuary of the Lord was not to be hidden, nor was this altogether desirable, since by his example he hoped to incite the nation to similar sacrifice. But his prayer of dedication shows a wonderful sense of spiritual perspective: “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is thine;... But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”(lChr.29:11-14).

Even more sublime is the utter unselfconsciousness in those on the Lord’s right hand in the Last Days. They are unaware that they have done any good acts of any consequence at all. ‘Lord, when did we minister unto thee?’ The sheer surprise in their protest (25:37-39) is not to be matched anywhere in Scripture.

Keeping an Eye on the Reward

In place of the reward of high public reputation for piety Jesus assures his followers of a different and better recompense: “Thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee.” Not that this should be the target of one’s striving and aspiration. No spiritual ambition which is self-centred is truly spiritual. L.G.S. has some very caustic comments on this attitude of mind: “A man would be far from meek who thought that inheritance of the earth would be the due return of his meekness. It is a tragic absurdity to think: ‘I will be meek, because that is the way to obtain the inheritance.’ In that way a man will attain nothing but an inverted pride: he will be a play-actor whose performance deceives himself: and in his unlovely self-righteousness he may not have even the Pharisees’ reward of popular applause...By just such incongruities under a thin disguise the heart deceives itself in every age. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom’ has too often been read as a call to pursue with a joyless possessiveness the bigger returns which the next life can offer for the surrender of present pleasures.”

At the same time it would be priggish to be indifferent to the Father’s promise of a reward and a kingdom. Those, who are most aware of their own detects marring all present strivings after godliness, are the most intense in their longing for a better life in which to glorify God. Here, once again, motive is the important factor. Those who single-mindedly seek the praise and honour of God will find their best and highest reward in a future realisation of that aspiration.

“Reward thee openly”
In all three places where Jesus repeats these words about reward (v. 4, 6, 18) the modern translations omit the adverb “openly”, although the manuscript evidence for this omission is not altogether decisive. If the word is an unwarranted addition to the text, it is difficult to surmise how it came to be included. Actually the evidence in favour of its inclusion varies in the three places and is markedly the strongest in verse 6, concerning the reward for secret prayer.

But if indeed the word “openly” is to be omitted, then this leaves room for reading: “Thy Father which seeth shall reward thee in secret.”

The Law of Moses is explicit that God follows the principle of overt retribution on evil-doers: “He repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, and he will repay him to his face” (Dt. 7:10). Divine justice will be done, and will be seen to be done. And so also, one may be sure, God’s graciousness- hereafter, if not in this life. “Thou shalt be recompensed in the resurrection of the just” (Lk. 14:14).


The Lord was equally incisive in his observations on the danger of seeking to make capital out of the religious practice of fasting. “Become not ye of a sad countenance”, he said, thus plainly implying the warning: “Don’t put it on!” He underlined this with a pun that was not light-hearted: “The hypocrites disfigure their faces, that they may figure before men as fosters.”

Jesus was not against fasting as such. Indeed, he assumes (“whenever”; v. 2, 5, 16) that it will be part of the life of the disciple. Already he had spoken about the need for spiritual self-discipline (5:29, 30). Fasting was another aspect of the same regimen - not for health reasons (which are never mentioned in the Bible in this context), but as an aid to true devotion (Acts 13:2; 1 Cor. 7:5; 9:24-27). Therefore it must be kept to oneself, and not paraded. You are to anoint and wash (and array) yourself as though going to a feast. Afflict your soul inwardly, said Jesus, but see that it does not become an occasion for display and spiritual pride. Let it be between you and your Father. He sees, He knows, and he rewards. Nothing else matters.

Notes: Mt. 6:1-4, 16-18

If v. 7-15 are set in brackets, the rest of v. 1-18 falls into three tidy paragraphs.
Alms. Basically the word means “mercy”, but it came to describe this special kind of mercy to the poor. Cp. the fate of the AV word “charity” in 1 Cor. 13.

Glory of men. But, let it not be forgotten, the action is seen by God also, and for what it truly is.
Shall reward thee. There is a definiteness and certainty about this.
Sad countenance. Dan. 1:10 Gk. has the same word.

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