Notes Matthew chapter 6
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
Giving Alms 6:1-4
6:1. If righteousness (Gk. dikaiosun) is the original reading, this verse refers back to Matt 5:20 and links 5:21-48 (the explanation of the law) with 6:2-18 (the practice of piety). At the same time it is a general introduction and contains the theme of vv. 2-18. But if ‘alms’ (cf. KJV, Gk. elenmosun) is the original reading, this verse must be considered an introduction to vv. 2-4 (the giving of alms).
In these verses Jesus discusses the three important works of righteousness (religious duties) of Pharisaism: the giving of alms (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15) and fasting (vv. 16-18). Of themselves, these works belong to the message of the prophets. But the pharisees’ fault lay in their motivation: to be seen and respected by men. Because they were concerned with their own reputation, there was no question of good works (cf. Matt 5:16). Consequently, they would not be rewarded by the Father in heaven, for they had already had their reward, honour from men.
On reward, see also Matt 5:12,46; 6:2,5,16; 10:41-42.
2. When you give to the needy. This ‘giving’ is a love-gift. It is a way of showing mercy, which is clearly shown by the Greek word used here (elenmosun= mercy). Clearly Jesus presupposes that His disciples give alms too (‘so when you …’; cf. v. 3).
Do not announce it with trumpets. The offertory-boxes in the Temple and the synagogues were called trumpets (Mishnah, shekalim 2,1; 6,5) on account of their shape (they were smaller at the top than at the bottom to prevent theft). Continuing the metaphor Jesus is speaking here about the public giving of charitable gifts in the presence of many witnesses.
As the hypocrites do. The word ‘hypocrite’ (Gk. hupokrits, dissembler), which occurs fifteen times in Matthew, is used here for the first time. It originally meant ‘playactor’, i.e. someone who appeared in a mask, pretending to be someone else. Later, in a generalised sense, ‘hypocrite, disembler’, i.e., someone who deceived himself or others (often both). For this reason hypocrisy is often a mixture of falsity and outward piety.
I tell you the truth (lit. verily I tell you). These words indicate Jesus’ authority next to considerable emphasis (cf. Matt 5:18,20,22,26,28,32,34,39,44).
They have received their reward. They have received what they wanted, i.e., honour of men, and can no longer expect anything from God (cf. vv. 5 and 16).
3. In contrast we must not only refrain from seeking honour from men (v. 2). We must also not praise ourselves, which does indeed happen when we are engaged in calculating the reward for performng good works.
Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. The left hand (a man thinking about himself) must not know what the right hand (a man giving) is doing, i.e., not only are we not to perform our good works to be rewarded, but we must even forget the good we have done (cf. Matt 25:37-40). A disciple must let himself be guided only by love for God and for his neighbour.
4. So that your giving may be in secret: this does not only speak of the way in which alms must be given (not in public, in the public eye, v. 2, cf. Prov 21:14) but speaks first of all of the motivation for giving: which is not viewed as one’s own achievement, but which is done out of love for the Lord and then forgotten (v. 3).
Your Father, who sees what is done in secret (i.e., things concealed from the eyes of men) will reward you. The majority text reads ‘will reward you openly’, i.e. in the eyes of men. This takes place in the disciples’ emanating a divine splendour (Matt 13:43), a promise now partly fulfilled (cf. commentary on Matt 5:9, 16, 45). The definitive reward, however, will be given when the Lord returns. At the Judgement God will reward all believers for the works they have done for Him (Matt 10:42; 1 Cor 3:11-15; 2 Cor 5:10).
5. And when you pray. Just as Jesus accepted almsgiving as a matter of course, He also takes it for granted that His disciples will say the Jewish prayers. The Jews accepted more or less regular times for prayer (Ps 55:18; Dan 6:11; Acts 3:1).
In the synagogues and on the streetcorners: the rule for morning and noon prayer was one might pray anywhere, wherever one happened to be at the time, at home or in the street. The Pharisees, about whom Jesus is speaking here, liked to pray in the synagogue (in public) or so arranged things that they just happened by apparent chance to be in the streets when the call to prayer came and were therefore compelled to pray under the eyes of the people.
Neither here nor elsewhere in the Bible is there any condemnation of public prayer. What Jesus does condemn is playing at prayer, i.e., that in which someone prays so as to be seen and heard by others.
They have received their reward in full: see commentary on v. 2.
6. Go into your room. This ‘room’ is the so-called closet (Gk. tameion), a small storage-room, which at the same time was the space where the most valuable possessions were kept. The costly treasure of prayer has its home here.
Close the door and pray. An expression of the greatest secrecy. Prayer is too serious a thing to be the subject of playacting. We will be preserved for Gods judgements in these secluded inner chambers (Isa 26:20). Moreover, one may not attach too much importance to the place of prayer. It was not necessary to go to the Temple or the synagogue for prayer. We can pray to God in an ordinary secular place too, such as the storeroom was. Further, Jesus sometimes prayed on a mountain (Matt 14:23) or in the fields (Mark 1:35). See further Acts 10:9 (Peter) and II Kings 4:33 (Elisha). The place is not important, but the separation is.
Who is unseen: The Father does not only see hidden things (vv. 4b, 6b, 18b) but He Himself is also unseen (cf. v. 18; I Tim 6:16). So praying in the closet corresponds with God’s nature.
The reward spoken of here is not so much a reimbursement for something in this case, but rather a natural consequence, a fruit of prayer (cf. Matt 7:7-11). On the nature of this reward see commentary on v. 4.
7. Babbling like pagans. ‘Babbling’ means empty talk, chatter. These careless words are closely connected with the multiplicity of words with which the pagans hope to be heard. They taught, as did some rabbis, that uninterrupted repetitions assured that prayer would be heard. The Pharisees too usually prayed for a long time (Mark 12:40). Their prayers were formal, without paying too much attention to the content. The prayers were said instead of being prayed from the heart. Jesus condemns these practises.
8. We do not pray to God to tell Him something or to attract His attention, but because He is our Father (v. 9). And the Father wants His children to express their trust and dependance in prayer (cf. Matt 7:11). The Father knows what we need (cf. vv. 25-34, especially v. 32) and this is reason enough for keeping the prayer (i.e., an asking prayer) short.
Promises made (cf. Isa 65:24) now come into fulfilment.
The Lord’s Prayer 6:9-15
9. Our Father in heaven. The first line (Our Father in heaven) comprises the basis for all our prayer and reviews all we need to know about God before we can pray. ‘Our Father’ emphasises the nearness of God (in view of the trusting relationship between Father and child) but ‘in heaven’ speaks at the same time of the distance there is (the difference between the earthly father and the heavenly).
Hallowed be your name. The first three petitions are not prayer-wishes (may Your name be hallowed, etc.) but true asking-prayers addressed to God, the fulfilment of which is expected from God (vv. 7-8). The first petition reads thus: ‘Hallow your name’ (i.e., among men) or better ‘Let your name, i.e. your Person, be hallowed, i.e., be esteemed holy, be exalted among men. God himself wil make His Holiness visible at the dawning of His Kingdom (v. 10a) and will sanctify His Name among men (Ezek 36:20-23).
10. Your kingdom come. God’s Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 3:2) dawned first with the coming of Christ (see Matt 12:28 among others). But when Jesus comes in glory, this Kingdom will be revealed in all its splendour (Matt 25:34). Therefore this petition remains current today.
Your will be done. This is an explanation of the second petition: the coming of the Kingdom of God will bring victory over everything that goes against the will of God. Although this prayer is primarily concerned with the Last Things, it cannot be prayed by anyone who has not put his will into subjection to the will of God.
11. Give us today. After the thrice-repeated ‘Your’ of the first petitions (vv. 9-10) there follows a thrice-repeated ‘us’ (vv. 11-13). While the first three petitions are primarily concerned with things yet to come, the last three petitions speak primarily of today. Prayer is made for the Kingdom of God to break through in the disciples’ lives.
Our daily bread. The meaning of the Greek for ‘daily bread’ (arton epiousion) is very controversial. This is because the second Greek word is not found in extra-Biblical sources, or found only once, and in the Bible only in the Our Father. It is also unclear from which verb we must derive epiousion (’to be’ or ’to come’). We give the interpretations that have been suggested: a) bread necessary for survival, b) bread for the day in question, c) bread for tomorrow, d) bread appropriate for it (i.e. today) and e) bread for the future. Meaning e refers to the coming feast in the Kingdom of God. Since we must take bread here in the wider sense of food, the literal meaning does not exclude the figurative, but includes it. The food God gives, the gifts of the Kingdom, are for body and soul.
Although the precise meaning of this verse is controversial, the intention is plain: our Heavenly Father gives us everything we need here and now as a foretaste of the rich provision for later, when the Kingdom of God dawns in glory.
12. Forgive us our debts. Our sins are debts to God, which we, the debtors, cannot pay. The judgement is the great settlement. Asking for the forgiveness of our sins is therefore an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no other way to get rid of sin. It is a prayer for grace.
As we also have forgiven our debtors. We are not forgiven because we forgive others, but we ask to be forgiven in the same way that others are forgiven by us. Forgiving others is therefore not a good work with which we can earn God’s forgiveness, but it is a condition for receiving God’s forgiveness (vv. 14-15; Matt 5:24; 18:21 ff, esp. v.35).
13. Lead us not into temptation. The Greek word for ’temptation’ (peirasmos) may mean an outward oppression (through circumstances) but also an inward temptation (through the condition of the heart). In both cases it is a situation which can bring a man to sin. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is not ‘do not tempt us’ but rather ‘do not deliver us into temptation’, for that will lead to falling away, in other words, hold us fast. Daily temptations and tests are forerunners of the great temptation which will come over the world in the Last Days (Matt 24:21; Rev 3:10).
Deliver us from evil. Since this passage deals with temptation instead of the tempter, we must here, just as in Matt 5:37, 39, speak of evil rather than of the Evil One. It deals with all the evil present in the world. Hence the petition ‘deliver us from evil’ is also a prayer about the dawning of the Kingdom of God (cf. v. 10b ‘Thy will be done’).
For Yours is the Kingdom etc. These words (cf. I Chron 29:11) do not occur in the oldest manuscripts. Judaism recognised two ways of ending a prayer, a formal ending and a free ending. This is probably the reason for one manuscript having a doxology and another not]
14-15. Our attitude towards other people has a great influence on our relationship with God, and vice versa. There is a connection between receiving forgiveness from our Heavenly Father and forgiving our fellow men. It is not a case of ‘one good turn deserving another’ but of a spiritual circulatory system which can be disturbed (Matt 5:24; 6:12; 18:35; Mark 11:25).
16. When you fast. Jesus is not speaking here about the communal fasts of the Jewish congregation on certain days (Lev 16:29; Zech 7:3,5; 8:19) but about voluntary personal fasts. In Jesus’ time it was customary to look grave and to make the face unfit to be seen by not washing. For a strict fast ash was sprinkled on the head (cf. Isa 58:5), the clothing was torn, no shoes were worn and no greeting given. This was a consequence of the close connection in the Old Covenant between fasting and mourning (I Sam 20:34; II Sam 1:12; Dan 10:2-3; Joel 2:12; Zech 7:15). The Pharisees walked through the streets in this state and tried to appear exceptionally pious. This sort of fasting was so conspicuous that even the Romans made it ridiculous by imitating it in their theatres.
Do not look somber as the hypocrites do. Jesus does not disapprove of fasting here. On the contrary, it was even presupposed (‘when you fast’). What He rejects is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (‘do not … as the hypocrites’).
They have received their reward, see commentary on v. 2.
17. When you fast, put oil on your head. From the fact that Jesus speaks about fasting directly after praying (vv. 5-15), it appears that He is maintaining the close connection, found in the old Covenant, between fasting and prayer (Ps 35:13; Dan 9:3; cf. Luke 2:37). But He gives a totally different meaning to fasting. In any case Jesus forbids His disciples to behave in a noticeable way in times of fasting in order to draw attention to themselves. But there is a still more important difference. Whereas fasting was an expression of sorrow for sin and its consequent punishment in the old Covenant, it is now, in the time of fulfilment, an expression of joy (for forgiveness received). For Jesus does not only ask for the face to be washed, but also for the head to be anointed, which was a sign of joy and abundance (cf. Ps 92:10; Amos 6:6; Mark 14:3).
18. To fast before God is not to distinguish oneself from other men in all kinds of externals, but separating oneself for the Lord, it is serving God, who is unseen and sees what is done in secret. Obviously Jesus is speaking about personal fasting in general, not only about fasting in certain circumstances to support prayer (see Matt 17:21; Acts 13:3; 14:23).
Will reward you, see commentary on vv. 4 and 6.
Gathering Treasures 6:19-21
19. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. Jesus does not forbid ownership of earthly possessions (cf. Luke 19:2, 8-9; Matt 27:57), but collecting earthly treasures. This makes us slaves to Mammon (v. 24). The treasures most esteemed in Jesus’ time were costly materials and beautiful clothing (in connection with the moth), and wooden chests and furniture in general (in connection with the woodworn).
The Greek word for ‘rust’ (brsis) literally means ‘devourer’. Here we must think of woodworm rather than rust (Bauer, s.v.).
20. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. The reward about which Jesus is speaking (6:1, 4, 6, 18) is an incorruptible heavenly capital waiting for its owner. This treasure is acquired by behaviour pleasing to the Lord (such as giving material assistance to the poor, Luke 12:33), but also by patiently enduring suffering for Jesus’ sake (cf. Matt 5:12 and 19:21). The treasure will in any event exceed our wildest expectations.
21. This verse makes it clear that in laying up heavenly treasures it is not the treasure that is important but the treasure chamber, i.e., heaven.
Compare also Paul’s words in Col 3:1,2. ‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’
The Lamp of the Body 6:22-23
22-23. The eye is the lamp of the body. A healthy eye illuminates the whole body, i.e., all the members of the body function optimally because of the light received through the eye, which leads to a good spatial orientation. But if our eyes are bad, we must fumble in the darkness.
If your eyes are good. The Greek word for ‘good’ (haplous) literally means ‘singlefold’. Said of the heart (v.23b), it means ‘united, in singleness of purpose, guileless, pure, upright’ (cf. Matt 10:16). But used of the eye it means that the eye is clear and bright, i.e., healthy. One is not only not blind, but does not have double or distorted vision.
The light within you. The Bible says in Prov 20:27: ‘The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly’ (KJV). If an infirmity in our physical eye has such deleterious consequences, how much more serious will the consequences be if our inward eye, i.e., our heart (by virtue of v.21), is not a candle of the Lord, but is dark!
Serving Two Masters 6:24
24. A slave (cf. Luke 16:13) is not a master of his own life. He is another’s possession, and therefore cannot serve two masters at the same time. The Greek word douleu (to serve) means serving with an exclusive loyalty, being completely at someone’s disposal. That such service is a service of complete surrender Jesus makes still more clear through two contrasts (love – hate; hold to – despise), which must naturally not be explained as concerned with themselves, but with each other (cf. Luke 14:26 ff, John 12:25).
Finally, two persons are mentioned by name: God and Mammon. Mammon is not simply a personification of money, but of riches and of possessions in general. Jesus does not here condemn (cf. vv. 19-21) having possessions, but serving Mammon. Mammon becomes our master if our possessions gain the mastery over us so that we become their slave. God wants us to serve Him only, but to rule over Mammon and to use these things in the service of the Kingdom of God (cf. Luke 16:9).
25. Therefore links vv. 25-34 and v. 24 and means: because being anxious is serving Mammon.
Do not worry. Jesus does not forbid being concerned (cf. Titus 3:8), but being worried, making worries. Here He is speaking about being worried for oneself with an eye on the future (cf. v. 34), because one is trying to achieve security. A man makes himself concerned about his life (soul, body) and about his sustenance (food, drink, clothing). It is a worrying cause for concern (cf. v. 31, what we must eat, drink, etc).
The first reason Jesus proposes for getting rid of anxious cares is expressed in the words: life is more important than food, and the body is more important than clothing. More is needed to keeping alive than food alone. Ultimately life is dependant on God and His Word (Matt 4:4).
26. Look at the birds of the air. The second reason for leaving anxious cares behind is provided by the example of the birds, in which witness is borne to the Creator’s goodness and faithfulness (cf. Ps 104:10-18). If the Father in heaven cares for the birds, He will surely give His children what they need. That man can learn from the life of an animal has been said in the OT: ‘But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you’ (Job 12:7).
27. Who of you … can add a single hour to his life? This verse gives the third reason: being worried is senseless. Since v. 26 dealt with life and only v. 28 with the body, v. 27 does not deal with the height of the body but with the length of life. Increasing the stature by an ell (51 cm!) is indeed incredible.
Nobody lengthens his life by being anxious, rather the reverse. The length of life is determined by God. By being anxious, vital energy is wasted, but by trusting in God His will is fulfilled in our life.
28. See how the lilies of the field grow. Jesus takes up again the thread from v. 26: the goodness and faithfulness of the Creator. If God cares for the flowers and the grass and clothes the wild plants (all wild flowers are called lilies) in the woods and on the hills with a beauty surpassing the glory of Solomon, how much more will He care for His children. This fact is strengthened by two items: firstly, that the lilies neither labor nor spin, i.e., do neither man’s work nor woman’s. Secondly, with the pointing to the short existence of the grass (v.30). This is much more transitory than a man.
29. Not even Solomon … was dressed like one of these. Solomon’s glory, which consisted of wisdom and riches, had become proverbial (I Kings 3:12-13;4:21-34; II Chron 9:13-28).
30. The grass of the field, which is … thrown into the fire. It was difficult to find kindling in Palestine, which was poor in trees, and therefore dry grass and weeds were used as fuel (cf. Matt 13:30). The oven was often nothing more than an earthenware pot which could be moved. Dried weeds, thorns etc. were placed under the pot and lit. This occurrence is used as an illustration in several connections (Ps 118:12: Eccles 7:6).
You of little faith. The expression occurs four times in Matthew’s gospel (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:18) and once in Luke’s (12:28). Such a person has litle confidence in faith. By speaking in this way to the disciples Jesus gives them both a friendly setting to rights and also an encouragement to grow in faith.
31. Jesus repeats the admonition from v.25: so do not worry (cf. Ps 55:23). He emphasises yet again the anxiety brought by worries about one’s security (what shall we …).
32. Jesus gives two new reasons for casting care aside: firstly, because the pagans seek these (material) things. If the disciples admit this care to their lives, it indicates that they have backslidden to the level of the heathen. And this is very serious (cf. Matt 5:47; 6:7). Secondly, because the heavenly Father knows our needs, even before we pray about them (see Matt 6:8). That He knows our needs also means that He will care for us (v. 33).
33. Seek first his kingdom. The demand of v. 33 is set against the warning of v. 31. The tense used here for ‘seek’ must be interpreted as ‘seek always, continuously’ (as in Col 3:1; cf. Matt 5:6). ‘Seek’ has here the sense of ’try to obtain’ (Bauer, s.v.). It corresponds to hungering and thirsting from Matt 5:6.
And his righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ is the very being of the Kingdom of God, it is the divine order of things. The righteousness which the believer already possesses (Matt 5:20) is still incomplete, and does not exclude hungering and striving for complete righteousness. Jesus requires His disciples always to seek the spiritual blessings of the Kingdom first instead of material profit, which the pagans seek (vv. 31-32).
All these (material) things will be given to you. Although this is the normal situation in the Kingdom of God, it does not mean that the life of a disciple in these times (the time of ‘already – not yet’) will always be freed by God from cares, difficulties, etc. (cf. Matt 10:16 – 23 and 29-31; I Pet 5:7). It means that this insecurity does not have to make us anxious, for everything that happens is under God’s control. Hence God’s kingship, His lordship, must be our first care. Then all anxiety will disappear.
34. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Just as Jesus showed the absurdity of rabbinical casuistry by using their own method in Matt 5:22, and that not without irony, so here He descends to the thought processes of those who despite the reasons given against godless and vain cares nevertheless still maintain that it is impossible to live without cares in this life. Normal worldly wisdom says ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. If a believer worries about tomorrow, then may worldly wisdom with its quietening humour shame him with the absurdity of so doing.