We’re familiar with the expression “Do the right thing.” It’s a common slogan today, stemming in part from its use as the title of Spike Lee’s highly acclaimed 1989 film about race relations in the Bedford-Stuyvestant area of New York City. In today’s politically charged environment, doing the right thing may become virtue signalling or humblebrag, striking a pose for the approval of our peers. It doesn’t matter whether you are on the left or the right politically, you know what I’m talking about. It’s easy to posture in ways that get your peers’ approval and likes on social media. It’s easy, but is it right?
Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 6:1-18 that virtue signalling has no place in the life of a Christian. Following Jesus isn’t just about the right thing—what we do—it’s about the right motive—how we do it. The Pharisees were all about doing the right things. A right thing was called a mitzvah (obeying a command) or tzedakah (a just deed). As Israel’s ultimate Torah-teacher, Jesus makes perfectly clear what Moses had already said—in texts like Deuteronomy 5:21; 6:4-6a; 30:2, 6—our obedience to God has to come from the heart. The Rabbis also knew and taught this—the Talmud (c. 400 CE) poked fun at virtue-signalling Pharisees in Sotah 22b. This text lists seven kinds of Pharisees. We might call six of them virtue signallers. Only one of the seven served God out of love.
Matthew 6:1-18 prods us toward the greater righteousness that Jesus demanded in Matthew 5:20. It grabs our hearts by asking us why we do the right thing. Are we performing for God’s eternal approval or for the momentary applause of our peers? Who is our audience? What is our motive?
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Go here for an unedited Zoom video teaching on Matthew 6:1-18.
Previous posts in our Sermon on the Mount Series:
- The Sermon.1: Vista (Matthew 5-7)
- The Sermon.2: Jesus Turns the World Upside Down (The Beatitudes in Matt 5:1-12)
- The Sermon.3: Don’t Diss Moses! (Matt 5:17-48)
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The Flow of Thought: Yeshua’s Kelal Uferat
A common teaching technique begins with a general principle and follows it with application to specific cases. Rabbinical tradition going as far back as Hillel (late first century BCE) called this kelal uferat (general and particular). This was one of several Rabbinic principles for expounding the Torah. A biblical example of this way of teaching is Leviticus 18, where Moses first tells Israel to obey God by being different from the surrounding nations in verses 1-5. A long list of prohibited sexual activities follows in verses 6-23. Saint Paul used this pattern in his letters. For example, in Ephesians 4 he first speaks in general about the Ephesians’ new life in Christ (verses 17-24) and follows up with examples of how newness in Christ transforms specific areas of life (verses 25-32; cf. Col 3:1-4 with 5-17). Early Rabbinical examples from the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) include Baba Qamma 8:1 and Eduyot 3:1.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and 6 also fits the kelal uferat pattern. In our last post we noted how Jesus spoke in general about his relationship to Moses (5:17-20) before he addressed six specific examples of his teaching (5:21-48). In Matthew 6:1-18 the pattern is the same—Jesus speaks about religious duties in general (6:1) before giving us three specific examples: giving (6:2-4), praying (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). Jesus teaches us to perform all of our religious duties for the glory of God alone. Here’s the details of how kelal uferat plays out in Matthew 6:1-18:
The Examples: Giving, Praying, and Fasting
Jesus’ teaching on giving alms (charity) is not novel. Benevolence is a major duty of the people of God throughout the Bible (e.g. Lev 19:9-10; 23:2; Deut 24:19-22; Job 29:12-17; Rom 15:25-27; Phil 4:10-20; James 1:27; 2:14-17). Jewish literature from around the time of Jesus stressed charity (e.g. Sirach 3:30; Tobit 1:3, 16, 12:8; Mishnah Avot 5:13). Much later, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah 10:7–14 (c. 1180 CE) listed eight levels of charity, with anonymous giving to an unknown recipient near the top of the list, and unwilling giving at the bottom. Jesus practiced and commanded charity, citing Deuteronomy 15:11 in Matthew 26:11 (cf. Matt 5:42). His teaching assumes rather than commands charity and focuses on the motivation for helping others—imitatatio Dei. Followers of Jesus are to mimic the ways of God, who cares for all humans whether they believe in him or not (Matt 5:43-48; Luke 6:32-36). Paul likewise teaches in 2 Corinthians 12:9 (citing Ps 112:9) that benevolence flows from God’s generosity, which culminates in the gift of salvation through Jesus.
Prayer is a (the?) foundational responsibility of a child of God. As Jesus’ model prayer shows, prayer addresses God relationally as a Father who delights in helping his children. Yet God is in heaven, not in the next room. It is nothing less than amazing that the almighty, glorious Creator and Lord of the universe wants us to relate to him in a familial way. The God whose glory distances himself from us has graciously come near us in Christ.
Jesus’ teaching about prayer in Matt 6:5-15 is more extensive than his words on giving and fasting (cf. Matt 5:42; 7:7-11; 21:13, 22; Luke 18:1-14). Jesus’ practice of prayer is also featured in the Gospels (Matt 14:23; 19:13; 26:26-27, 36-46, 53; Luke 6:12; 9:28; 11:1; John 17).
Our next post will focus on the Lord’s prayer.
Fasting is the third example that illustrates Jesus’ teaching on how to obey God. Although fasting is not as prominent as charity and prayer in biblical ethics, Jesus assumes it is a major part of his audience’s religious devotion. In awe of God, Moses refrained from eating for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Torah (Exod 34:28). Fasting is also a way of expressing repentance. (2 Cor 12:22). Fasting became a key expression of self-denial on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29; The Damascus Document (CD) represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, spoke of fasting on Yom Kippur in 6:19 . Mishnah Yoma 8:1 prohibited eating, drinking, bathing, and sexual intercourse at this crucial time of the Jewish calendar. Acts 27:9 likely refers to Yom Kippur simply as “the fast.” Fasting was also practiced during times of distress or danger (Jdg 20:26; Ezra 8:21; Neh 1:4; Esther 4:3, 16). Isaiah prophesied against fasting as an external display to secure God’s favor (Isa 58), anticipating Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6. Instead of hypocritical fasting as a transaction with God, Isaiah called for a “fast” of humility, justice, turning from wickedness, and helping the hungry and homeless.
In the NT, the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted often (Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33; 18:12). Yet Jesus was not known as a frequent faster (Matt 9:14-17). His 40-day fast in the wilderness as his ministry began (Matt 4:1) was apparently not a pattern as his ministry continued (Matt 11:16-19). The one text where Jesus spoke about fasting as a means of exorcism (Matt 17:21; Mark 9:29) is textually dubious.
Fasting was a practice of the early Church. The Didache (early 2nd century CE) spoke of fasting before baptism and as a regular practice that should occur twice a week (Did 7-10). 2 Clement (mid 2nd century CE) spoke of prayer, giving, and fasting in view of coming judgment: Alms is good to show repentance from sin; fasting is better than prayer, and alms is better than than both. “Charity covers a multitude of sins,” and prayer out of a good conscience delivers from death. Blessed is every one that shall be found complete in these, because alms lightens the burden of sin (16:4).
According to Mishnah Avot 1:13, Rabbi Hillel said “A name made great is a name destroyed” Another way of putting the saying is “whoever makes his name great loses his name.” Are we willing to leave our reputations in the capable hands of God, or would we rather build our reputation on the shifting sand of popular opinion? “Blowing your own horn” is a vice, not a virtue.
How we do what we do is a crucial matter for Jesus-followers. Doing the right thing in the wrong way, to gain the applause of our peers, amounts to forfeiting the Father’s approval. Doing the right thing in the right way, with our minds fixed solely on the Father’s approval, leads to an eternal reward. Battling hypocrisy is an everyday task for followers of Jesus. What are we after, a moment in the spotlight or the Father’s eternal smile?
Who is your audience? Jesus has already made it clear that our character should be like the Father’s (Matt 5:48). Now he teaches us that our performance is for the Father alone. Showing off—”If you got it, flaunt it!”—is not a kingdom value. This applies to how we view others as well as to ourselves. If we are not to perform our own religious duties for human applause, neither should we call attention to the performance of others for human applause. Imitating the world rather than our Father, our tendency is to feature wealthy people who give large sums of money, eloquent people whose prayers impress us, and humblebraggers who tell us about the blessings of fasting. This is contrary to the teaching of our Lord Messiah Jesus and it denies the values he lived by.
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But the LORD said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NLT)
Guard your heart above all else,
for it determines the course of your life. (Prov 4:23 NLT)
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you,and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Ps 139:23-24 NLT)