Saturday, November 17, 2012

Jesus' Guide to Getting Rewards for Your Good Deeds

In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus explains how to give, pray, and fast in a way that gets you the best reward.

He does what now?

Image source.
I'm serious. In each of the 3 sections of this passage, Jesus first says how NOT to do your good deeds: Don't do it to show off to everyone, because then that's the only reward you'll get. Instead, do it so only God can see, and God will reward you. He quite explicitly says this in verse 1.

His emphasis on the "reward" was very surprising to me. We'll talk about that in a minute, but first let's go through this passage one step at a time:


Don't announce it with trumpets. Umm, was this actually a thing? Given all the other hyperbole we've seen in the sermon on the mount, I'm going to assume people weren't literally blowing trumpets and proclaiming "HEY LOOK EVERYBODY, I'm giving money to this pathetic homeless person! I'm awesome!"

Jesus says instead, "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Great, this is definitely not to be taken literally, so now we have to figure out what it means...

He's setting up a contrast between "hypocrites" who are just giving away money because they want attention, and people who give quietly. I would say the main difference is motive. More on that later.


Similarly, Jesus tells us not to be like "hypocrites" who pray in public just to show off how holy they are. Instead, "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

Does this mean that we should never pray in public, never pray with other people, never let people know that we're praying? Dude, Jesus prays in public sometimes. He's definitely not saying "don't ever let anyone hear you pray." Instead, he's saying that prayer must be more about you and God than about enhancing your reputation.

And I love the part about "do not keep on babbling." How many times have you listened to someone pray and it just feels like they're "babbling"? And how many times have you tried to come up with something fancy to say, when praying in front of other people? Totally not necessary. Just tell God what's up. And don't worry about censoring yourself either- whatever you wanna say, God can take it. The psalmists didn't censor themselves. If they felt like God had abandoned them, they straight-up asked him why.

Don't censor yourself. Don't worry about saying the right thing, or making a long fancy prayer. God knows how you feel and God knows what you need, so just be honest- with him and with yourself.

(I'm not going to analyze the Lord's Prayer right now because I like it and I want to dedicate a whole post to it next week. ^_^ )


Same thing here. Jesus says don't be like the "hypocrites" who "disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting." That kind of makes me laugh.

Pictured: Disfiguring one's face to show off fasting. Image source.
Instead, he says this: "But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen."

Not obvious to people, but obvious to God. Obvious to God. This verse means a lot to me because of the many times I've made the right choice, done the right thing, but no one seemed to notice, and I wonder if it even mattered- did God even notice?

"... so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father..." It's not just that God has access to the information about you fasting, if he chooses to pay attention. No, it's OBVIOUS to him. There is no possible way for him to miss it.

When you dedicate yourself to God, when you try your best to obey him, but it doesn't seem like anything is happening or anyone noticed, don't be discouraged. God noticed. In fact, it's OBVIOUS to him.

So what is up with the "reward"?

For each of these topics- giving, praying, fasting- Jesus sets up a contrast between people who do their good deeds in front of other people, and those who do it secretly so only God sees. He says the first group receives their reward in the form of admiration from others, and the second group gets a reward from God (which we can assume is BETTER than just getting attention from people).

What's the reward? Is it something we get in heaven, or right away, or over the long-term...? Is it something cheesy like "the satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing"?

So let's speculate. Maybe the "reward" is tangible good things that will happen to you- God will help you get a job, help you not get sick, etc. Maybe the "reward" is that other people will treat you well because they see you're an honest person who really wants to do good and help people, and isn't a jerk about it. Maybe the "reward" is that it builds character. Maybe the "reward" is something you don't get until you die and go to heaven.

Anyone else have ideas? Jesus doesn't tell us what the reward is, so I'm wildly speculating. Join me.

Image source.

But how can we be motivated by a reward? Isn't that selfish?

Not necessarily. Every single thing you do, you do because at some level you want to do it and think it will have a beneficial outcome. Suppose you donate money anonymously. You do it because you want to be a generous person, and you want to help the person on the receiving end. Suppose you procrastinate and waste time on Facebook when you should be doing homework. You do it because in the short term, that's far more fun and interesting than actually doing work.

I'm highly skeptical of any philosophy that says we should do good just because we should do good, and tries to deny any personal benefits- or says that it's somehow evil/deceptive/dishonest to acknowledge that doing the right thing can come with rewards. If you tell me "you shouldn't do it because you want a reward, you should do it just because it's the right thing", I will ask you how you define "the right thing"- and your definition is probably going to hinge on some beneficial outcome. How is that not a reward? I do something because it will have good effects in the world, and I LIKE IT when there are good effects in the world. Technically even that is a "reward."

But at the same time, isn't it a little weird how Jesus mentions the "reward" over and over in this passage, as if that's the ONLY motivator for doing good deeds?

I've also recently heard the idea that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and their emphasis on laws and external behaviors. Perhaps he's mocking how they seem to be doing everything for a reward, and telling how to get a real reward.

So, can we or can we not let other people see us doing good?

Yes, totally, you can. Jesus is not giving us restrictive new rules; he is addressing the motives behind our actions. Be the kind of person who is motivated by what God thinks of you. Be the kind of person who doesn't complain when no one seems to notice your efforts towards doing good.

If you take this to the extreme and go to great lengths to NEVER let anyone see know that you are praying, giving, or fasting, then you're controlled by other people's opinions just as much as if you were doing it to show off.

And yes, Jesus prayed in public, but I bet he spent far more time praying alone.

Also, maybe I'm crazy, but I think there's something kind of special about doing good deeds in secret, so no one will ever know about it except God. On some level, I think there's some appeal to keeping good secrets like that.

So when you give, be confident that God sees it. When you pray, be confident that God hears and knows what you need. When you fast, be confident that it's obvious to God. And that's far more valuable than any compliments or admiration you'll get from people.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Okay, "turn the other cheek" makes no sense (Matthew 5:31-48)

Next post: Pray with me (Matthew 6:9-13)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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