True Reward

MATTHEW 6:1-21
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is one of the most beautiful pieces of Jesus’ teaching, covering a wide variety of topics, but always with the solid anchoring theme of “the Kingdom of Heaven.” This theme ties the entire discourse (which can, at times, feel like a series of disconnected teachings) together and imbues it with meaning.

This is what life in the Kingdom looks like.

But there are other ways that Jesus structures His thoughts within this sermon – structures that are often difficult to discern in modern translations due to chapter and verse breaks and the inclusion of chapter titles (which were not in the original text).

Chapter 6 is a good example of this. There is a section of the Sermon on the Mount that begins in the first verse, continues through teachings on generosity, prayer, and fasting, and concludes (in my opinion) with verse 21 (though most major translations break this passage up into three separate sections, and consider verses 19-21 as separate).

And while it is helpful, at times, to break this passage up and ask what Jesus wants us to learn and how He wants our lives to reflect these ideas on generosity, prayer, and fasting, it is equally important that we look at this section as a whole – to ask if Jesus had one “big idea” that connects all of these things.

The key to this section is to look at the first and last groups of verses, which form the “bookends” that frame this section.

The passage begins:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1).

Jesus establishes in the first verse that He will be talking about religious works (“practicing righteousness”) and the rewards that we receive. Jesus wants us to consider what kind of reward we seeking in our religious practices? Are we seeking out the rewards that come from success and adulation from our fellow men, or are we seeking to be rewarded by God? Those are questions that should be lingering in the back of the reader’s mind all the way through verses 19-21, where the entire section is summarized:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21).

Why do we practice our religion? Is it to look holy and righteous before men, or is it because we genuinely desire God? We are constantly building up a storehouse of treasures, either on earth (that is, treasures that will die along with you), or in heaven, where the treasure is eternal.

That is the framework, then, under which we are called look at these three subjects: Generosity, prayer, and fasting. And it is no mistake that Jesus ties each of these topics to one another with a repeated phrase: “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, and 16). In each case, Jesus points to those who do good works for the purposes of being loved and regarded on earth, and declares that our reward is always consistent with our desires. If we seek the adulation of men, then that is exactly what we will receive. If we seek to be known as one who is righteous, then that will be our reward. But if that is all we are seeking, then we have no right to expect anything more.

This reminder was especially significant to Jesus’ audience, of course. Jesus was speaking to a society founded on and built around religion. The Jerusalem temple was the center of Jewish society and every aspect of society revolved around it. To be successful in religion was to be successful in life; the leaders of the religion were the leaders of the society. So while in the 21st century it may seem odd that anyone would seek earthly rewards by way of public prayer or fasting, that is exactly the case in first century Judea. Those who proved themselves particularly devout could expect to be respected, held in esteem, and achieve political power. So by doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, these people – Jesus calls them “hypocrites” – do, in fact, achieve their end goal. They are building great storehouses of these “treasures”, failing to realize that their treasures are destined to be destroyed. They have been practicing a false religion all along.

So what are the rewards that come from true religion? What rewards are reaped by those who quietly give generously because they recognize that God knows and loves all of His children; or those who go to God quietly in prayer, simply to connect with their loving Father; or who engage in true, worshipful fasting?

Hasn’t Jesus already given us the answer?

The blessings of the “beatitudes” (Matt. 5:2-11) are the rewards for those who seek the Kingdom of Heaven above the kingdoms of this world; who consider the rewards that come from men as nothing in comparison to the blessings promised by Jesus. There are the promises of kingdom, and comfort, and inheritance, and satisfaction, and mercy, and so on. The promises of the beatitudes continue to hover over Jesus’ discourse as continues to expand upon what it looks like to be a citizen of this new kingdom.

Life in Jesus’ Kingdom does not mean denouncing everything that the world values – but it certainly means holding up true religion and true worship as the supreme value. It means sacrificing everything for the sake of these things, knowing that the promises offered by Jesus are far greater than any the world could offer.