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The Sermon on the Mount:—Continued.
Summary —The Right and Wrong Way of Righteousness. Charity Not for Show. Our Alms-Giving Not to Be Sounded with a Trumpet. Prayer Not to Be Offered for Public Praise. The Model Prayer. Fasting to Be in Secret. Impossible to Serve God and Mammon. Trust in the Heavenly Father. The First Aim of Life.
1. Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men to be seen. The Common Version is wrong, and the Revision right, in using “righteousness.” The Savior condemns ostentatious piety, and then he singles out three illustrations of his meaning. The Christian is not forbidden to practice righteousness before men, but to make it his object to be seen.
2. When, therefore, thou doest alms. This is the first example. The wrong way, that of the hypocrites, is described. The Greek word rendered hypocrite means a theatrical actor, one who is not real, but acts a part. Their method was to give ostentatiously. In our age the world rings with the praises of the millionaire who gives a few thousands, but is silent concerning the humble ones who have taken from their necessities and given to the same cause. Sound a trumpet before thee. This seems to be a proverbial expression to denote the making of a thing publicly known. The meaning is, when you give to the poor, do not make a show of it. Hypocrite. A Grecian actor. The actors wore masks and appeared to be somebody else than they really were. So, too, the religious hypocrites.
3, 4. Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. A strong expression, to indicate that there must be no publishing of our alms deeds. That thine alms may be in secret. It is not concealment that is required, so much as to avoid ostentation. Openly. Literally, “in the open place,” in the last day, when every secret thing is made manifest.
5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be, etc. The second example of the right and wrong kind of righteousness is now given. That men ought to pray is assured. The wrong way is that of the hypocrites, the men who make a public show of their devotions that they may have the name of sanctity. Love to pray standing in the synagogues. These love, not to pray, but to pray where they will be seen, and pray that they may be seen. So the Pharisees took pains to be in some public place, where they could strike an attitude of prayer in the sight of many observers. The same spirit is often seen still.
6. When thou prayest, enter into thy closet. Private devotions are meant, nor is this designed to prohibit prayers in public assemblies. The Lord himself both prayed “in the mountain alone,” in the night alone, and in public in the presence of his disciples. We have records of many prayers offered by the apostles in public assemblies. “Thy closet” may mean any secret place. Peter's closet was on the house-top; the Savior's on a mountain alone.
7. Use not vain repetitions as the heathen do. What is forbidden is not much praying, nor praying in the same words (the Lord did both), but making the number of prayers, length of prayers, or time spent in praying, a point of observance and of merit. 1 Kings 18:26 gives an example of the repetitions of the heathen. Mahometans and Catholics still hold that there is merit in repeating certain prayers a set number of times.
9. After this manner pray ye. The Savior does not bid us use these words, nor command any set form, but gives this as a proper example of prayer, simple, brief, condensed, yet all-embracing. Our Father which art in heaven. These words reveal a very tender relationship between God and the true worshiper, and base the petition on the fact that the child speaks to the Father. Hallowed be thy name. Of the seven petitions of the Lord's prayer the first three are in behalf of the cause of God; the glory of his name, the extension of his kingdom, and the prevalence of his will. The other four, which are properly placed last, as least important, pertain to our individual needs. No one can offer the first three petitions who is in disobedience. Hallowed. Holy, sacred, reverenced.
10. Thy kingdom come. The Messiah's kingdom had not yet come, but was proclaimed by the Lord as at hand. It did speedily come, but in its fulness, and in its final triumph over evil, it has not yet come. For this coming we may now pray, and the prayer is answered in part by each success of the gospel. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. None can pray thus who have not merged their own wills into the divine will. He, in effect, prays the prayer of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” It is mockery for disobedient lips to utter such a prayer.
12. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive, etc. Debts mean moral obligations unfulfilled—our shortcomings, our sins. Let it be noted with emphasis that God is asked to forgive us as we forgive others. We ask, in other words, that he may mete out to us what we measure to others.
13. Lead us not into temptation. The thought is that God may preserve us from temptations that might lead us astray. No man can pray these words who does not try to keep out of temptation. For thine is the kingdom. This clause, called the doxology, is wanting in the oldest and best manuscripts, and is undoubtedly an addition by men.
16, 17, 18. When thou fastest. This is the third example of the right and wrong way of righteousness, in contrast. The same principle of doing nothing for mere show is still insisted upon. Fasting is not wrong, and, indeed, is often blessed richly, but not when our object is to appear to men to fast. Of sad countenance. It was common to assume a woe-begone look, put ashes upon the head, and even wear sackcloth, in order to show to the world deep humiliation. This is condemned. Anoint thine head. That is, dress as usual. Wash thy face. The usual practice before eating. Thy Father … shall reward thee. Our self-denial must be for the eyes of God, not of men.
19. Lay not up treasures on the earth. This forbids, not the laying up of treasures, but laying them up on the earth; that is, the piling up of worldly wealth for worldly purposes. Riches are no sin in themselves, but the improper use of riches is a sin. Where moth and rust corrupt. Unused garments often become moth-eaten; unused coin sometimes rust. All earth treasure will finally perish. Thieves break through. Literally, “dig through.” Often robbers in the East dig through the house walls of mud or unburnt brick.
20. Lay up … treasures in heaven. This is the only way to save our wealth. It is a positive precept. Our wealth must be consecrated to God and used as his work demands. Wealth used for doing good is treasure laid up in heaven.
21. For. This introduces a reason for the preceding precepts. Where thy treasure is will be thy heart. This states a universal truth. A man's heart will be upon what he treasures most. If his treasure is in heaven, heaven will have his heart.
22, 23. The light of the body is the eye. This is not an abrupt transition, but bears on the same subject. If one's eye is diseased, all he sees is wrong. So the mind, or conscience, is the light of the soul. If these be darkened, all is darkness; if these see aright, all is light.
24. No man can serve two masters. He cannot give his heart to two services at the same time. He cannot follow two callings successfully. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. This is the direct application. The Chaldee word “Mammon” means money or riches. It is here personified as an idol. “Mammon” originally meant “trust,” or confidence, and riches is the trust of worldly men. If God be not the object of supreme trust, something else will be, and it is most likely to be money.
25. Take no thought for your life. At the time the Common Version was made, the expression “Take thought,” meant to be anxious. The Revision properly renders it, “Be not anxious.” The Greek word means, “to have the mind distracted.” Christ does not forbid prudent forethought. Is not the life more than food? The argument is: God gave the life, and it is higher than food. If he gave it, he will see that it is sustained, if you trust in him. So, too, he made the body. He will see that it is clothed.
26. Behold the fowls of the air. God feeds the birds without their sowing or reaping, but they do the work for which they were created, and God takes care of them. So, too, he will take care of us—not in idleness or improvidence—but if we do the work for which God created us.
27. Which of you can add one cubit, etc. There can hardly be a doubt that this ought to be rendered, “add one cubit to his age,” or period of life. The idea is: “What is the use of anxiety? Who, by his anxiety, can add anything to life's journey”? If it is proper to speak of “length of life,” it is also appropriate to speaking of adding a cubit to its length.
28. Consider the lilies. While the lilies do not toil or spin, they do their work, draw up sustenance from the earth, and drink in the dew, rain and sunbeams. So we are to do our appointed work. It we do this, trusting in God, he will supply all our needs.
29. Even Solomon in all his glory. To the Jew the court of Solomon was the highest representation of human glory. The magnificence of the court is not only celebrated in Jewish writings, but in all Oriental literature, and it is still proverbial throughout the East. Yet he was never arrayed with the taste and beauty of one of these. It is probable that both birds and lilies were in sight from where the Lord was sitting.
30. If God so clothe the grass of the field. Wild flowers belong to the herbage that is cut with the grass. In Palestine the forests in many localities disappeared thousands of years ago, and in the scarcity of fuel, dried grass and weeds are often used to heat the oven.
32. For after all these things do the Gentiles seek. This worldliness, anxiety, and distrust, might do in heathen, who have no knowledge of a heavenly Father, but you have a heavenly Father, and he knows that ye need all these things.
33. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. The promise is made that if we seek it first, and its righteousness, all earthly wants will be supplied. The condition demands, 1. That we seek the kingdom first in point of time. Some propose to secure a competence, and after they have gained it, they will serve God. 2. We must make it first in importance. Everything else must give way before its demands. 3. It must be first in our affections, have our whole hearts. We must “love the Lord our God with the whole heart” (Matt. 22:37). His righteousness. The righteousness that God bestows upon those who are in the Kingdom, Christ's righteousness, the forgiveness of sins in his name.
34. Take, therefore, no thought for the morrow. Again, it should read, as in the Revision, “Have no anxiety about to-morrow.” The morrow will take thought for itself. Not “take care of itself,” but bring its own cares, anxieties and troubles. We should not foolishly increase our present burden by borrowing trouble about to-morrow.
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