The Code of Humility: Charity & Fasting

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.1)

Righteousness is the major theme of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5. His people are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (vs. 6) and are persecuted as a result (vss. 10-12). Furthermore, citizens of His Kingdom have a standard of righteousness which surpasses the standard of the Pharisees (vs. 20), for they allow righteousness to mold the heart and not just their external actions. Their righteousness has the highest aim: to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (vs. 48).

Jesus continues His discourse on righteousness in chapter 6, but now addresses the motive behind any righteous action. We might assume that charity, prayer and fasting would always be pleasing to God, but our Lord shows that when motivated by pride these “righteous” actions receive no notice from our Father. Those performing righteous actions for the attention of others have the only reward they can expect to receive, for the Lord will not reward them. His hatred of pride is attested in Scripture (see Proverbs 6.16-17), and for good reason: “Men consumed by pride cannot love God. He is their enemy, their rival, the one who is standing where they want to stand. But it is not God alone that they cannot love. Pride at last prevents us from loving anyone. All men are seen as rivals for our position of honor.” (Paul Earnhart)

Righteousness is more than doing the right things; it is being the person God desires for the sole purpose of pleasing Him. So, we consider the next portion of the Christian’s code: the code of humility. “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8)

Charity (vss. 2-4)

2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6.2-4)

Hypocrisy can come in many forms. There is the hypocrite who acts like he is good even though he is evil (Matthew 22.15-18) and the hypocrite who harshly criticizes the faults of others while remaining blind to his own faults (Matthew 7.1-5). But the hypocrisy Jesus rebukes in this passage is perhaps the most dangerous of all, for it often goes undetected. As D.A. Carson relates, “the kind of hypocrisy involved in Matthew 6:2 is more subtle than either of the other two. In this case, the hypocrite has talked himself into believing that at heart, he is conducting himself with the best interests of the needy in mind. He may thus be unaware of his own hypocrisy. Moreover, the needy themselves are not likely to complain; they will be touchingly grateful, and contribute to the giver’s self-delusion. And all but the most discerning of onlookers will speak appreciatively of the philanthropist’s deed, for all acknowledge that giving is good.

Giving to aid the poor was stressed in the Law (Exodus 23.11; Leviticus 19.9-10; Deuteronomy 15.11) and those who gave generously were blessed (Psalm 41.1; Proverbs 19.17) while those who ignored the plight of the poor could expect no aid from their God (Proverbs 21.13). The Pharisees were right to give to the poor, but their hypocrisy lay in the fact that this act of love for their fellow man (and by extension an act of love for God) had degenerated into self-promotion.

It may well be impossible to hide all acts of charity from others, and that’s not Jesus’ intention. After all, He did many charitable deeds in plain sight (see Matthew 4.24). His concern is motive! If our charity is done for any reason other than care for our fellow man and out of devotion to our God, we’ve gone astray. If our hope is that others take notice, then we will have received the only reward we could expect… because there will be no reward from our Father.

Fasting (vss. 16-18)

16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6.16-18)

Fasting was an established part of Old Testament worship. There was only one ordained public fast—the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.29–31)—but in times of special crisis both the nation as a whole (2 Chron 20.3; Ezra 8.21; Neh 9.1) and individuals fasted (2 Sam 12.16; Neh 1.4; Psa 35.13; 69.10). In the years of the captivity some new fasts were evidently added to commemorate the calamities which befell the nation at the hands of the Babylonians (Zech 8.19). By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had turned private fasting into a hard and fast twice-weekly routine (Luke 18.12). Unfortunately, even the fast of the Day of Atonement which was intended to be a national expression of humble contrition for Israel’s sins often became no more than an empty ritual. ‘Indeed,’ God said through Isaiah, ‘you fast for strife and debate. …You fast not as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high’ (Isa 58.4). Old Testament history virtually closes with the Lord’s grieved question to His people: ‘When you fasted and mourned … did you really fast for Me—for Me?’ (Zech 7.5).” (Paul Earnhart)

Jesus fasted (Matthew 4.2) and said a day was coming when His disciples would fast (Matthew 9.15). He was certainly not against fasting, for fasting can be helpful in centering our focus on our Father and increasing our faith in Him (see Matthew 17.21). Fasting should be a God-centered activity, but the Pharisees had perverted it by making it an opportunity to publicly display their piety. They received the attention and praise of others, but they could not hope for any other reward. Their God was not impressed; He would pay no attention.

Jesus’ words here should cause us to consider our motive in any “pious” act. Does my attire for worship (whether I dress up or dress down) center me on God, or is it to bring attention to self? Is my singing aimed at praising my God and edifying my brethren, or is there a small part of myself hoping that others sitting near me will be impressed with my voice? “Almost anything that is supposed to serve as an outward sign of an inward attitude can be cheapened by this hypocritical piety… No voluntary act of spiritual discipline is ever to become an occasion for self-promotion. Otherwise, any value to the act is utterly vitiated.” (D.A. Carson)


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