Putting God First
1. “Take heed that you do not do your alms in front of men, to be observed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father that [is] in the heavens.
2. Therefore when thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet in front of thee, just as the hypocrites do, in the synagogues and in the lanes, so that they may be glorified by men. Amen I say to you, They have their reward.
3. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand does,
4. So that thine alms may be in secret, and thy Father that looks in secret shall repay thee Himself in what is manifest.
5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be just as the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the streets, so that they may appear unto men. Amen I say unto you that they have their reward.
6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy bedroom, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father that [is] in secret, and thy Father that looks in secret shall repay thee in what is manifest.
7. And when you pray, do not speak on and on, just as the gentiles, for they think that they shall be heard by their many words.
8. Therefore be ye not like them; for your Father knows what things you need before you ask Him.
9. In this way, therefore, you should pray: Our Father, who [art] in the heavens, hallowed be Thy name;
10. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, as in heaven so upon the earth.
11. Give us this day our daily bread.
12. And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.
13. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
14. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The focus of the preceding series of teachings was upon love towards the neighbor. This love should be so widespread as to extend beyond the borders of the family, beyond the borders of the neighborhood and even beyond the borders of a particular religious group. It should flow out towards all humanity, shining like the sun, equally and impartially on both the evil and the good, falling like the rain on the just and the unjust — in the same way as God’s love shines on everyone, in the same way that God’s wisdom comes down like rain everywhere. In other words, the goodness (represented by the sun) and truth (represented by rain) that flows in from God should extend outward towards the whole human race.
In this next chapter, however, there is a shift in focus. Whereas the preceding series of teachings focused our attention on the neighbor, the present series of teachings focuses our attention on God — the true source of all good works. Good works are, of course, necessary, but they must be done in the right spirit. Therefore, Jesus says, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them, otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).
Jesus is now halfway through His sermon, still sitting on the mountain. He has been instructing His disciples in the scriptures so that they might be rightly understood. But an accurate understanding of the scriptures is not enough. Even to do what they teach is not enough. If these works are to be done in the right spirit, they are not to be done for the sake of honor, reputation or personal gain. It is for this reason that Jesus now says, “When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be glorified by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward” (6:2).
Jesus is here referring to the shallow, temporary reward of being esteemed by others. While there is nothing wrong with doing things that might evoke gratitude, praise, and admiration, that is not the kind of “reward’ that a person pursuing perfection seeks. Rather, people who desire to continually perfect their spirit do not seek the praise and admiration of others; instead, they seek only to do the Lord’s will, knowing that the rewards for this kind of effort — inner peace, quiet joy, and blessed assurance — are given in secret. Therefore, Jesus says, “When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In this way, your charitable deeds will be done in secret, and Your father who sees in secret shall recompense you Himself in what is manifest” (6:2-3). 1
As Jesus continues His valuable lesson in putting God first — not self-glory and material gain — He provides instruction on how to communicate with God. First of all, speech with God should be in done in private, and not for the purpose of obtaining public praise: “When you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door . . . and your Father who sees in secret shall recompense you Himself in what is manifest” (6:6).
The “inner room,” which is sometimes translated as “closet,” “chamber,” or “bedroom” is ταμεῖόν (tameion) which also means “secret chamber.” If we take this literally, it seems to be speaking about a quiet place for uninterrupted prayer. While this is good, practical advice, the word choice also suggests the interiors of the human mind — our “inner room.” It’s about going within, removing oneself from all sensual distractions and material cares while attempting to enter into quiet communion with God.
When we “shut the door,” we leave behind the cares of the world, along with all ego concerns. We still our minds, focusing exclusively on our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. As it is written through the prophet, Isaiah, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3).
As Jesus continues His instruction how to connect with God, He teaches that prayers should not be filled with “vain repetitions” (6:7), nor is it necessary to use many words. As an illustration, Jesus gives an example of a simple prayer, which begins, as all prayers should, with a direct address to God who is the Father of us all — our Father. This simple phrase is to remind us that we are all brothers and sisters of the same heavenly Father.
The implications are powerful and profound. It serves to remind us that we do not worship an invisible, distant tyrant, but a loving Father with whom we have a deep, intimate personal relationship. All of this, and so much more, is included in the opening words of this illustrative prayer: “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done” (6:10).
The prayer begins in this way to help us focus on what is essential — our love and worship of God, especially the importance of doing His will. After this invocation, the prayer is filled with expressions that involve the neighbor — frequently repeating the words “us” and “our”: give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil. In other words, this pray involves both self and others. But the prayer ends as it begins, with a clear focus on God: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever” (6:12-13).
In the next verse Jesus returns to one of the central themes of the prayer: forgiveness. To ensure that His listeners do not miss this important point, He makes it quite clear that forgiving others cannot be separated from God’s forgiveness towards us: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (6:14). This is not to be understood as though God were in any way holding back His forgiveness until we do our part. Instead, it means that when we do good to others, we open the way to experience the forgiveness that is constantly flowing in from God.
But Jesus is also clear that the reverse is equally true: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15). In other words, to the extent that we forgive others, we experience God’s forgiveness. And to the extent that we do not forgive others, we close ourselves off to the blessings that God yearns to give us. The choice is always ours. Therefore, Jesus teaches us to ask God for forgiveness, Forgive us our trespasses, we pray, so that we may receive forgiveness; in turn, as we become filled with God’s forgiveness, we can offer forgiveness to others: “Forgive us our trespasses” we pray, “so that we may forgive those who trespass against us.”
It all begins in God.
Dealing with Despair
16. “And when you fast, be not just as the hypocrites, of a sad face, for they spoil their faces, so that they may appear to men to fast. Amen I say to you, that they have their reward.
17. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face,
18. So that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father that [is] in secret; and thy Father that looks on in secret shall repay thee in what is manifest.”
The focus on God continues as Jesus now turns His attention to another spiritual practice: fasting. “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting” (6:16). Once again, the literal instructions are quite clear. Just as Jesus warns against doing good deeds to be admired or praying in public in order to be seen as pious, He similarly warns against hypocritical fasting. This spiritual practice should not be used as a way of appearing righteous in the eyes of others. Nor should it be used to demonstrate to the Lord how deeply we are grieving, or the depth of our despair, in hopes that He will come to our aid.
The idea that we must “prove” to the Lord that we are truly suffering in order to get His attention and deserve His pity is an old idea. The ancient Israelites believed that tearing one’s clothes, wrapping one’s self in sackcloth, rolling in ashes, and fasting were some of the many ways of “afflicting one’s soul.” These practices included not only outward demonstrations of inner anguish, but also external shows of repentance, performed in the hope that God would take notice. In a graphic episode from the Hebrew scriptures, King Ahab is told that destruction is about to come upon him because of his wickedness. When Ahab heard this, “he tore his clothes, put sackcloth upon his flesh, fasted, and went about dejectedly” (1 Kings 21:27). Ahab’s show of suffering and sadness seemed to work. The passage goes on to say, “And the word of the Lord came to Elijah saying, see how Ahab humbles himself before Me? Because he humbles himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days” (1 Kings 21:28). 2
But Jesus counters this idea, teaching that there is a better way to deal with suffering. He knows that suffering arises during those times when we feel spiritual deprivation — an absence of good and truth in our life. During these periods of mental distress, there is a tendency to go about dejected, sad, gloomy, feeling abandoned by God. There seems to be no spiritual nourishment at hand. What we may not realize is that we are in the midst of a spiritual temptation — our soul is hungering and thirsting for the Lord’s goodness and truth. 3
Jesus offers the antidote: “When you fast,” He says, “anoint your head and wash your face so that you do not appear to men to be fasting” (6:17). This is good practical advice; it does no good to go about spreading gloom and despair. But Jesus’ words contain a more interior message. Throughout the scriptures, “oil” is a symbol of God’s love, and “water” is a symbol of God’s truth. Spiritually speaking, then, Jesus is giving sound advice for what to do in times of despair: “Anoint your head with the oil of God’s love,” He says, “and wash your face with the truth of God’s wisdom.”
Jesus’ advice works on both the natural and spiritual levels. Going about with a cheerful attitude, even in difficult times, is not just a matter of maintaining a stiff upper lip or pretending to be happy. With God’s love in our hearts and God’s truth in our minds, we will not appear to be fasting. However difficult the struggle may be, we will be sustained from within: “And your Father who sees in secret will recompense thee in what is manifest” (6:18). Even though the external situation does not change, God can work the inner miracle of bringing comfort when we are feeling despair, hope when we are feeling hopeless, and encouragement when we are feeling dejected.
Throughout this section, Jesus makes it clear that these secret rewards are always available to us whenever we turn to the Lord, opening ourselves to His love and seeking His wisdom. Whether we are doing charitable deeds, engaging in prayer, or going through a time of despair, if we turn to the Lord, feelings of inner peace, quiet joy, and blessed assurance are sure to arise. This is how the Lord, “who sees in secret,” rewards us openly.
Treasures in Heaven
19. “Treasure not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust spoil, and where thieves dig through and steal;
20. But treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust spoil, and where thieves do not dig through nor steal.
21. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
22. The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be illuminated;
23. But if thine eye be wicked, thy whole body shall be dark; if therefore the light in thee is darkness, how great [is] the darkness!”
As the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus reinforces the importance of focusing on the things of heaven, placing them above the things of earth: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (6:19) says Jesus. Instead, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (6:20). We are to value the things of heaven above the things of the earth, for the things of the earth will pass away, but the treasures of heaven — the wisdom we receive from the Word, and the spiritual qualities we cultivate as we live according to that wisdom — will abide forever. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
The Word of God, and the heavenly wisdom that we can receive through it, is indeed a great treasure; it sharpens our spiritual vision, and enlightens our mind: “If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” (6:22). A proper understanding of
God’s Word shows us that everything that happens can be turned to good, no matter how contrary to our will it may seem at the moment.
However, if we do not choose to store up for ourselves the treasures of heavenly wisdom, or develop heavenly qualities, our outlook on life will be tainted by the darker concerns of our lower self: “If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (6:23). Jesus therefore warns us about the consequences of seeing all things in terms of our selfish desires, for in doing so, we cast ourselves into darkness and misery. His warning is stated in no uncertain terms: “How great is that darkness!” (6:23)
Jesus is here distinguishing between earthy rewards and heavenly rewards. Every temporal, material reward — everything that rusts, everything that moths can destroy or thieves break in and steal — will pass away. But heavenly rewards can never be lost; they are eternal. The joy we once felt in selflessly helping someone can never be taken from us; the satisfaction of a job well done can become an enduring memory; the sense of being truly loved by a kindly grandparent — these are all heavenly treasures that nothing on earth can cause to rust, that moths cannot eat, and that thieves cannot steal. They will be with us forever. Even when memory fades, these treasures will still be there.
It is for this reason that Jesus urges us to focus primarily on the things of heaven: the Lord, the Word, and a life of service. This should be our “master”; everything else should be secondary. As Jesus puts it, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (6:24) 4
Absorption in materialism and the desire for wealth (“mammon”) can prevent us from experiencing the finer blessings of heaven. We cannot say that we love the things of heaven and the things of the world equally. Trying to do so would be like trying to look upwards with one eye and downwards with the other! 5
We must put our love of heaven above our love of the world.
It should be noted, however, that it is not wealth or riches in themselves that are to be despised and hated, but rather the love of them as ends in themselves. Whenever our primary focus is on ourselves, on our own happiness, our own security, significance and comfort, we are serving self rather than God.
It is, of course, not wrong to provide for ourselves and for our families. The caution, however, is to make sure that our desire to achieve reasonable comfort and security in our own lives does not become a driving passion and chief concern. Nor should it compete with our love for God and our love for heaven. To the extent that worldly ambition rules over us, we become slaves, and mammon becomes our master. Jesus is teaching that there is a better way. While the things of this world have their charms and delights, rewards and satisfactions, they must always be subordinated to the things of heaven. There is no other way. We cannot serve God and mammon. That’s why Jesus urges us to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven.”
Be Not Anxious
24. “No one can serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
25. On account of this I say to you, Be not anxious for your soul, what you shall eat and what you shall drink; nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the soul more than food, and the body [more] than clothing?
26. Look intently at the birds of the sky; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27. And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?
28. And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they labor not, neither do they spin;
29. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.”
30. And if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, [shall He] not much more [clothe] you, [O ye] of little faith?
31. Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, with what shall we be arrayed?
32. For all these things do the nations seek; for your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added to you.
34. Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow shall be anxious for the things of itself. Sufficient for the day [is] the evil of it.
Jesus concludes this segment of His teachings with the words, “Be not anxious.” This is often translated as “Do not worry” or “Take no thought,” but the Greek word used in this case is μεριμνάω (merimnaō) which means “to overly care,” “to be greatly concerned,” and “to be pulled apart.” In the light of Jesus’ teaching that we cannot serve God and mammon, we cannot let our worldly cares or worldly ambitions pull us apart or separate us from our love for God. 6
This is sound advice. However, if we take Jesus’ words too literally, it can sound like an all or nothing situation. What will happen to us if we choose to serve God, regardless of the outcome? Will we have enough to eat? Will we have enough to drink? Will we be able to provide clothing and shelter for our families? Jesus anticipates these concerns when He says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on” (6:25).
Really? Does Jesus really mean that? Is Jesus saying that we should let go of all concern about our earthly needs? Should we not worry at all about whether or not we can pay the rent, or put food on the table? Doesn’t this sound a little irresponsible? What does Jesus really mean by these statements?
Depending on how we read these statements, Jesus’ words can strike us as being the most alarming or the most comforting words ever spoken. It is alarming to think that we are called to give up all concern for acquiring the things that are essential for our very survival — food, drink, clothing and shelter. What will become of us? Our instinct for self-preservation naturally rebels against this idea.
On the other hand, we have other instincts — higher, nobler instincts. These include an intuitive sense that God loves us, desires our happiness, and will provide for our every need. Jesus, in fact, is speaking about this higher instinct when He says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26). When understood in this way, Jesus’ exhortation to not be anxious is one of great comfort. “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?” (6:27).
The words of comfort and reassurance continue: “So why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (6:28-29). Jesus then repeats the dominant refrain of this lesson: “Do not be anxious.” Do not ask questions like, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things (6:31-32).
Jesus then reinforces the idea that has been central throughout this part of his discourse: a single-minded focus on God must be paramount in our minds, above and beyond everything else: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” He says. And then, He immediately reassures us with these words of comfort: “and all these things shall be added to you” (6:33).
It’s reassuring to know that “all these things shall be added.” But we would be mistaken, to assume that God wants us to abandon all interest in this world, neglect ourselves and our families, seeking only the kingdom of God. Jesus is not preaching reckless abandonment and irresponsibility. Rather, He is teaching about priorities; He is teaching us what must be supreme in our lives compared to what must be of secondary importance.
Notice that Jesus does not say to seek only the kingdom of God; he says to seek first the kingdom of God. The exhortation to seek first the kingdom of God implies order and subordination, not exclusivity or total abandonment. A true believer will of course love God and the neighbor (including oneself), but devotion to God will always come first. A true believer will love both heaven and the things of the world, but devotion to the things of heaven will always take precedence over the things of the world. 7
A true believer will therefore be a responsible citizen, helping those less fortunate, caring for children, and providing for the elderly, but in all of this there will be a constant, quiet inner trust in God. Such a person will go about the business of everyday life, calmly and honestly, unshaken by setbacks, and content with all things whether they appear to be to one’s immediate advantage or not. Such a person remains focused on God, even while taking care of worldly matters.
A true believer knows that God is always providing, moment to moment, whether we are aware of it or not. A true believer trusts in God and has a deep understanding of what Jesus means when He says, “Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow shall be anxious about its own things” (6:34). 8
The certain knowledge that God is continually providing for us should inspire us to do all we can for others, knowing that God is doing all He can for us. Our job is to meet the challenges of each day with courage and equanimity, trusting in God, and making sure that our lives are led according to His will. There will be new challenges each day, but as long as we rest content in God, we can make it through anything, day by day. As Jesus puts it, “Sufficient for the day is its own evil” (6:34).
In the light of this lesson, then, we should continue to care, continue to provide, continue to be good householders, but not let anything “pull us apart” (merimnaō), pull us away, or separate us from God. In brief, in whatever we do, we need to remember Jesus’ words of comfort, “be not anxious.”