Matthew Chapter 6:1-8

I had to break this either before or after the Pater Noster.  This is a little short as it is, but with the Lord’s Prayer it was turning into a monster. So, I apologize for any lack of continuity caused by short posts. I am going to put the Lord’s Prayer into its own section.

Προσέχετε [δὲ] τὴν δικαιοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς: εἰ δὲ μή γε, μισθὸν οὐκ ἔχετε παρὰ τῷ πατρὶ ὑμῶν τῷ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

Hold out (hold back) your righteousness so as not to do (it) in front of people to be seen by them; if you don’t do this, you will not have a reward from your father that is in the heavens.

Of course, this calls to mind the story of the Pharisee and the Publican that Luke will tell.  Here is where humility starts to be emphasized. And I have to emphasize that humility was not a Graeco-R0man trait; one didn’t want to brag too much and slip into hubris, of course, but one was not generally loathe to blow one’s own horn. So we’re getting a change in attitude. Why? Think back to the last chapter, when Jesus enjoins the audience to settle lawsuits on the way to court. That was, I suggested, advice for a lower-status individual. Is this part of the same message? Be humble, because you are humble? Be humble, because you lack social status? I know there has been a lot of talk over the decades about the appeal of Christianity to the underclass, and that it first became popular with slaves and other members of the underclass. Is this part of the message? Is this how one is to be “poor in spirit”?  I tend to suspect so. Given that, it does not have to be directed to the actual underclass, because anyone can be poor “in spirit”. Still, the general idea seems to be to act like someone from the lower-status groups.

Then the idea of reward from your father in the heavens. Note that your reward is not in the heavens, but from the father who is in the heavens. Again, a sort of a tantalizing clue, or hint, or suggestion. It’s enough to allude to the reward of eternal life, but it stops well short of that. What sort of reward are we to expect? Will the reward come during this life? Will God make us rich? What is it to be? When is it to be? We simply don’t know. So does this go along with inheriting the earth, or the kingdom of the heavens being ours (assuming we are poor in spirit)? Again, we face the choice of the answer to this being such common knowledge for the audience, or in a situation where perhaps Matthew himself was not entirely clear on the implications.

1 Attendite, ne iustitiam vestram faciatis coram hominibus, ut vi deamini ab eis; alioquin mercedem non habetis apud Patrem vestrum, qui in caelis est.

Οταν οὖν ποιῇς ἐλεημοσύνην, μὴ σαλπίσῃς ἔμπροσθέν σου, ὥσπερ οἱ ὑποκριταὶ ποιοῦσιν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ ἐν ταῖς ῥύμαις, ὅπως δοξασθῶσιν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸναὐτῶν.

σοῦ δὲ ποιοῦντος ἐλεημοσύνην μὴ γνώτω ἀριστερά σου τί ποιεῖ ἡ δεξιά σου, ὅπως σου ἐλεημοσύνη ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ: καὶ πατήρ σου βλέπωνἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.

 When you may do alms-giving, do not trumpet before you (i.e., announce your intention as if you were blowing a trumpet), as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, so that they are glorified by everyone. Amen I say to you, they have had their reward. (3) do not allow your left hand to know what the right hand does, (4), in this way your alms-giving will be in the crypt (i.e., in secret); for your father who is seeing into the hidden place will hand over (your reward) to you.

Overall, it’s hard not to read this as a description of Jewish practice. Of course the reference to “synagogues” is a dead giveaway. In addition, given that I know that giving alms was an important aspect of Jewish custom, if not Law, and being less aware of pagan practice, it seems that this is doubly directed at Jews. What does this do to my idea that Jesus/Matthew is addressing a primarily ex-pagan audience? At first glance, it may seem to pose difficulties, but I’m not so sure. To begin, the reference is disparaging. They are hypocrites (Note that the English word is a direct transliteration of the Greek.) I do think Matthew had training in Judaism to some extent, whether as a cradle religion, or as an ex-pagan who became a god-fearer. Given this, what we may have here is an instance where Matthew is starting to put more distance between his Jewish background and his current status as a follower of Jesus. 

And this brings up a really interesting question. I have mentioned many times that there was a “tipping point” at which most new converts came from a pagan background. I don’t think that point had been reached at the time when Mark wrote; I believe it had been reached and passed by the time Matthew wrote. But there is another continuum that we have to consider. When did the Jesus communities stop being an offshoot of Judaism, or just followers of Jesus, and become what we can justifiably call “Christians”? Offhand, I don’t know if there is a consensus, or a majority opinion about this. But my suspicion is that we have probably crossed that line with Matthew’s gospel. I started down this road in one of my failed attempts to summarize Chapter 5. Given the attitudes expressed in the Beatitudes, and the admonition to secrecy here, I think we are now operating in a Christian milieu. I have the impression that this is somewhat earlier than what the majority opinion may be, especially given the emphasis placed on Jesus’ Jewish roots. But we are not talking about Jesus here. We are talking about Matthew and his audience, and the two are not at all synonymous. But this is too big a topic to discuss here. For the moment, just be aware that my position here is that we are now talking about Christians.

Also, the fact that Matthew distinguishes the hypocrites in the synagogues from the hypocrites on the street could be an indication that he is talking about two separate groups. The first being Jewish, the other–those giving on the streets–being pagan. As such, he would be covering both parts of his audience. However, this may be reading too much into what could easily be a rhetorical construction, a distinction just made for the way it sounds, or as a way to soften the blow being struck against Jews.

Going back to the point about the Jewish/Christian continuum, the part about giving in secret may actually be the most significant aspect of this passage. Please forgive me if I’m beating a dead horse, but I don’t think it’s possible to read this without thinking of the distinction between shame-cultures and guilt-cultures. In a shame culture, what matters is how one is regarded by others. So in a shame-culture that values alms-giving, the giving of alms should be done ostentatiously, in front of as many witnesses as possible. In such an environment, a trumpet or two announcing the gift is not in the lease to be scorned. A guilt-culture, OTOH, emphasizes the inner person. Are you doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, or only for the social status of it? Giving in secret falls into the latter category. 

Now it’s difficult to determine where Jesus/Matthew’s audience would have fallen on the shame/guilt scale. The Oresteia trilogy, by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, dealt with the transition of Greek society from a shame culture to a guilt culture. This is the story of Orestes, who killed his father Agamemnon, only to be pursued by the Furies, the representatives of public opinion. In the final play, he effectively does penance and so the guilt is removed from him. This had been written 400 years before Jesus, so the thought expressed here by Matthew was by no means innovative. But one should doubt that the transition had been made by all ethnic groups, in all parts of the Roman Empire. The admonition to give in secret, to do what is right because it’s right, and not for the social reward, is certainly meant to further the transition. Now the Jewish Law had been formulated under the expectations of a shame culture, so this could easily be seen as another attempt to separate the older Jewish tradition from a new tradition. Can we say a Christian tradition? This is not meant to render a value judgement; at the time of this writing, there may have been such distinctions. It’s no different from Paul accepting slavery, or stating that women should not speak during worship. Beliefs are influenced by time and place.

 One other thing about this struck me. At first, I was thinking that since the topic was alms-giving, that perhaps this might indicate that the audience wasn’t quite so lower income as I’ve been suggesting. But on second th0ught, I’m not so sure. Think about the situation. Who are the people giving ostentatiously in the synagogues, or in the streets? The poor, or the not-quite-poor? Probably not. And what would be the effect if someone stands up in the synagogue and donates the equivalent of $1,000 0r Euros, or pounds? Of course, all would be impressed, at least to a point. Then there would be others who might look into their purse and find nothing. Or maybe they don’t even carry a purse because they have nothing in it. How would someone like that feel? I’m thinking it might be a shaming experience. If so, who are the beneficiaries of the injunction to give secretly? Those who might not be able to give all the time, or to give as frequently or as much as someone of substantial means. So it is quite conceivable that this is directed to persons of lesser means, which is consistent with what I’ve been suggesting.

A couple of etymological notes. First, what I rendered as “in secret” was the word “krypton”, which really means “hidden”. Once in a footnote of a Superman comic, the editors noted that Krypton, Superman’s home planet, was a Greek word meaning “the hidden one”. I don’t recall how this was relevant to the story, but that doesn’t matter. And this is also the source of the English word “crypt”, which is a place where the dead are hidden. But the one that got me is the left/right distinction. If you look below at the Latin, the distinction is “sinistra/dextera”. IOW, left = sinister, and right = dexterous. In Greek, however, the root for left is “aristeros”, while right is “dexia”. The connection between “dexia” and “dextera” is pretty obvious. But the root of “left” is “the best”. And given that in French, left is “gauche”, which also is used to mean “socially awkward”, calling the left side “the best is a very different take on the distinction. Could you guess that I’m left-handed?

2 Cum ergo facies eleemosynam, noli tuba canere ante te, sicut hypocritae faciunt in synagogis et in vicis, ut honorificentur ab hominibus. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam.

3 Te autem faciente eleemosynam, nesciat sinistra tua quid faciat dextera tua,

4 ut sit eleemosyna tua in abscondito, et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.

Καὶ ὅταν προσεύχησθε, οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταί: ὅτι φιλοῦσιν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ ἐν ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν ἑστῶτες προσεύχεσθαι, ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.

σὺ δὲ ὅταν προσεύχῃ, εἴσελθε εἰς τὸ ταμεῖόν σου καὶ κλείσας τὴν θύραν σου πρόσευξαι τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ: καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, (they) that love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the and on the corners of the streets, so that they appear to people. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  (6) Rather, when you pray, go into your room and lock your door (and) pray to your father in secret. And your father will see in the hidden place (and) he will reward you.

This is a bit more curious than the injunction to give in secret. What is the purpose of praying in secret? Well, maybe not so curious after all. The idea here is to be sincere. Don’t pray so that you gain a reputation for piety that, perhaps, is not warranted. The purpose is to pray from your heart, alone, when and where only you and God will know that you have done so. This is related to the idea of the guilt culture, but part of this is a transition from a religion of pro forma actions to a religion based on what is in your heart.

Now, I don’t want to push that too far. Too often as a kid I was told that Jewish practice in the time of Jesus had become formal and legalistic, a matter of form rather than of content. And RL Fox cited any number of previous authors who said pretty much the same thing about pagan rites: they were all about the external form and lacking of interior emotional appeal. Then he does a pretty thorough job of demolishing this idea. And I have the impression that others have done the same for Jewish practice of the time. To cite RL Fox once again, Christianity took root in a period of time that saw a florescence of pagan religious expression rather than a period of pagan decline. The latter half of the first century was one of those times when religion becomes a generalized phenomenon. The same has happened a couple of times in American history as well. And part of the reason for this renewed outpouring of religious feeling was that, for the most part, the Empire was at peace. The horrific civil wars that ended the Roman Republic were distant memories belonging to old persons who had been young back then, or even had only heard the stories from the grandfathers who were the last to witness them. This was actually a good time in the history of the ancient Mediterranean. Yes, there was a lot of suffering and poverty, but the endemic wars that periodically killed thousands, ruined thousands more, and saw further thousands forced into slavery were largely non-existent, at least in the heart of the Empire. There was fighting in Britain, and on the Rhine frontier, but those were but distance experiences that would have barely registered to most people. Yes, the Jewish Rebellion of the late 60s was truly awful, but it was a localized event. In such circumstances, people have the leisure to think about the other world. Nascent Christianity took its place in this world.

5 Et cum oratis, non eritis sicut hypocritae, qui amant in synagogis et in angulis platearum stantes orare, ut videantur ab hominibus. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam.

6 Tu autem cum orabis, intra in cubiculum tuum et, clauso ostio tuo, ora Patrem tuum, qui est in abscondito; et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.

Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βατταλογήσητε ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί, δοκοῦσιν γὰρ ὅτι ἐν τῇ πολυλογίᾳ αὐτῶν εἰσακουσθήσονται. μὴ οὖν ὁμοιωθῆτε αὐτοῖς, οἶδεν γὰρ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὧν χρείαν ἔχετε πρὸ τοῦ ὑμᾶς αἰτῆσαι αὐτόν.

Praying, don’t babble on like the nations, for they think that in their many-wordedness (loquacity) they will be heard, Do not be like them, for your father knows your needs before you request them.

OK, we got the negative contrast with the Jews, and now we’re getting one with the pagans. This sort of echoes some of the things Paul said about the Corinthians and their desire to listen to polished rhetoric and slick speech. Here, their fault is that they go on and on, as if they could wear the gods down by sheer persistence. 

It’s also interesting to note the end bit about God knowing our needs before we ask. Again, we in the 21st Century are accustomed to think of God in terms of being omniscient, but this was not necessarily the way God was viewed in the ancient world. This version of God only came about after several centuries of philosophical and theological speculation and argumentation. St Anselm came up with, the definition, the being greater than which nothing can be conceived*. But the gods were not seen as infallible, or omniscient, and even YHWH went through a period of development. I don’t know if he was conceived of as being God in the sense we understand the term.

The important thing to take away from this is, once again, the personal intimacy this implies. God knows us, knows our wants. This is very different from, say, the Homeric world where the gods had their favorites. Of course, the Homeric world was some 800 years prior; we don’t quite see the world, or religion the same as they did in 1215. This is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.

* Here is the whole thing, courtesy of St Anselm.

God is the being greater than which nothing can be conceived.

If God didn’t exist, it would be possible to conceive a greater being.

Therefore, God exists.

This is known as the ontological argument for the existence of God, and it wasn’t until Kant that someone was able to find the weakness in the argument. I cite this to point out how the term “God” came to be understood as the peak, the pinnacle, the most complete. It is very important to realize that this understanding was a development. It is not something to be understood, a priori, from the very word. “Omniscient” cannot be understood as inseparable from the term “God”, the way that “three sided” can be understood from the term “triangle”. Or, rather, while “omniscient” can be understood as part of the term “God” in the 21st century, this was not true in the First Century.

7 Orantes autem nolite multum loqui sicut ethnici; putant enim quia in multiloquio suo exaudiantur.

8 Nolite ergo assimilari eis; scit enim Pater vester, quibus opus sit vobis, antequam petatis eum.

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 4, 2015, in gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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