The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Notes On Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 (For Ash Wednesday)

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 14, 2010

To see my notes on Joel 2:12-18 click here.


A. The Basic structure of St Matthew’s Gospel.

The Gospel of Matthew is a finely structured document, consisting of a series of alternating narratives and discourses.  In this arrangement, each narrative prepares for the discourse which follows it.  In turn, each discourse helps define the intention and meaning of the narrative which precedes it.  Thus, the narrative of chapters 1-4 prepare for the discourse in chapters 5-7, which in turn helps explain 1-4; the narrative of chapters 8-9 prepare for the discourse in 10, which in turn helps explain 8-9 and so on.  This arrangement has a cumulative effect. 1-4 prepares not only for 5-7, all 7 chapters prepare for 8-9, and all 9 prepare for ten etc.

Another feature of Matthew’s structure is that the second half of the Gospel parallels the first in a descending order.  The first narrative (1-4) parallels the last narrative (26-28); the first discourse (5-7) parallels the last discourse (23-25) the second narrative (8-9) parallels the second to last narrative (19-22) and so on.  For more on the structure of Matthew one can profitably consult MATTHEW, HIS MIND AND MESSAGE by Peter F. Ellis.  This small book was published by the Liturgical Press, St John’s Abbey in 1974.  Now out of print and somewhat dated it is still an excellent introduction to the Gospel, and copies can sometimes be found for sale on the internet.

B. How chapters 1-4 prepare for the Sermon on the Mount (5-7).

i. The first narrative establishes Jesus as a King, the promised Messiah, Son of David, through the genealogy (1:1-17), and by establishing the legal fatherhood of Joseph (1:18-25).  Also through the visit of the Magi (2:1-12) and the fulfillment of prophecy (1:23; 2:6; 3:3; 4:15-17).

ii. The first narrative also portrays Jesus in terms of Moses, alluding to both the OT and Jewish traditions.  Like Moses, Jesus life is threatened by a ruthless potentate who has no qualms about massacring children (Ex 1:15-16=Mt 2:16-18).  According to Jewish tradition the father of Moses had a dream announcing that his son would be born (see Mt 1:18-25).  Pharaoh was, according to tradition, made aware of the birth of Moses by a scribe (see Mt 2:4-6).  Moses saved his life by fleeing to Egypt, just as Jesus life was saved by the Holy Families flight to that country (Ex 2:5-10=Mt 2:14-15).  Both were called back to the country they took flight from (Ex 4:19=Mt 2:20).  Both fasted for forty days and forty nights (Ex 34:28=Mt 4:2). For more parallels see The Ignatius Study Bible’s The Gospel Of Matthew and The New Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture.

iii. As the Sermon on the Mount opens Jesus-Moses like-ascends a mountain and promulgates the New Law of his Messianic Kingdom: “In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew will present Jesus as one like, but “greater than,” Moses.  Like Moses, Jesus goes up to the mountain, but, unlike Moses, he proclaims with full and lordly authority not the Old Law but the New Law-the messianic Torah which true disciples of the Kingdom must observe.  Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount with the same full authority he claims for himself in Mt 28:18, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…'”

iv. The narrative of 1-4 also helps prepare for some themes dealt with in the sermon.  The theme of righteousness , which may be defined as doing the will of God as revealed by Jesus, permeates the whole discourse and has been prepared for by the portrayal of Joseph as a righteous man who does God’s bidding; by the preaching of John the Baptist that people produce fruit; and by Jesus himself, who speaks of fulfilling all righteousness to the Baptist.  The criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees (Jewish leaders) that one sees in the Sermon has been prepared for by the hypocrisy of Herod and the non-response of the Scribes to the news that the Messiah had been born.  The persecution of the infant Jesus has prepared for the Beatitudes, especially the last two (5:9-10).

C. The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount.

i. Introduction: 5:1-16.  Jesus ascends the mountain and delivers the beatitudes (5:1-10), the observance of which will allow the disciples to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world (5:11-16).

ii. The body of the Sermon: The body (5:17-7:12) consists of four parts arranged in parallel.  Part 1 (5:17-19) parallels Part 3 (5:21-48), and part 2 (5:20) parallels part 4 (6:1-7:12).

Part 1 (5:17-19). Jesus declares the inviolable nature of the Law which he has come to fulfill.  This declaration prepares for part 3 (5:21-48) where Jesus gives a new (in the sense of better, fuller, perfected) interpretation of the Law.

Part 2 (5:20). Declares that the righteousness of the disciples must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees.  This prepares for the contrast between Pharisaical and Christian practices regarding the giving of alms (6:1-4); prayer (6:5-15); fasting (6:16-18); the use and abuse of material things (6:19-34); how to treat others (7:1-12).

iii. The conclusion to the Sermon: Four warnings (7:13-27) which are in parallel, with the first relating to the third, and the second relating to the fourth.

The first warning (7:13-14) cautions that many will find destruction while few will find life.  The third warning (7:21-23) cautions that not all will enter the Kingdom of God.

The second warning (7:15-20) cautions against false prophets who can be identified by the fruit they bear/produce (Greek: poieō).  The final warning (7:24-27) concerns hearing and doing/producing (Greek: poieō) the words of Jesus.

iv. Transition to second narrative (7:28-29).

Notes On 6:1-6, 16-18.

Mat 6:1  Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.

Alms (6:2-4), prayer, (6:5-8) and fasting (6:16-18) were traditional acts of piety among the Jews (see Tobit 12:8).  For both Jews and Christians the state of justice/righteousness is not an ossified state, rather it must be active; one “does” righteousness.  Needless to say, this fact can very easily lead to hypocrisy.  The favor, glory, and honor we can get from men by doing such acts should not, and must not, be our motivation, for we cannot serve two masters.  We must let our light shine before men that they might see our good works, but this is so they will give glory to God (5:15).

Catechism: 1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, 31 which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.” 32 (Source)

Take heed that...  Bishop MacEvily: Our Redeemer, having fully shown, in the preceding chapter, how far our “justice,” i.e., our observance of the moral law should excel that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and having also pointed out their violation of the law, both in their teaching and their actions, commences this chapter by showing how far we should excel them as to the motives which should actuate us in the performance of the precepts of the law, common to His followers and the Jews.

St Gregory: “Why then”, the saint asks, “is it commanded that our work shall be so done as not to be seen (6:1), and yet that it shall be seen (5:15)?  Why is it that what we do must be hidden, so that we are not praised, and yet what we do must be made manifest so that men may increase their glorifying of out Heavenly Father?   How is it that the Lord forbids our doing our righteousness before men lest we be seen by them, but also teaches that our good works should be seen by men that they may glorify your Father which is in heaven?”  The answer he gives is that Jesus teaches us that we must be aware of the end we have in view.

Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.: “The word that (take heed that) denotes the intention and the end.  Do not do holy and just works with this intention and object, to be seen and praised by men, for this is vain ostentation.  But Christ does not here forbid them to be done publicly, and advantageously, that men may see them and glorify God.  Whence St Gregory says, ‘Let thy works be so done openly that thy intention may remain in secret, and that we may afford an example of good works to our neighbors, so that yet with our intentions, by which we seek to please God only, we may always desire secrecy.'”

Catechism: 1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). source.

St Basil: “Let us fly from vain glory, the insinuating spoiler of good works, the pleasant enemy of our souls, the moth of virtues, the flattering ruin of our good things, who colors the poison with the honeyed mixture of her deceit, and who holds out to the souls of men her deadly cup.  And I think she does this that men may the more greedily drink her down, and never be satisfied with her.  How sweet a thing is human glory to those who have not had experience of it!”

Mat 6:2  Therefore when thou dost an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

Sound not a trumpet.  Lapide: When the Scribes and Pharisees were about to give alms in the public streets they either sent a trumpeter before them, or else blew a horn themselves, under the pretext of drawing together by that means crowds of poor persons, who might run and receive alms, but in reality out of ostentation, and that their liberality might be seen and talked of by those who flocked together.

As the hypocrites do. The word “do” (poieō) is a key word in St Matthew’s Gospel, and is a key concept even if the word is absent: “What all men are to “do” if they are to be true disciples of Jesus constitutes the content of the apostolic didache.  In Matthew’s carefully chosen words, the Apostles are to teach men ‘to observe all that I have commanded you.'” (Ellis, Matthew, His Mind And Message, pg 137).  Even when the exact word is not used the theme is still often present.

Hypocrites. This Greek word originally referred to actors in a play, which gives meaning to the words “to be seen by men.”  The word itself is derived from the Greek ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrinomai), which means to decide, speak, or act falsely.  The root of this word (krino) means to decide or judge, and relates to what was said about intentions earlier.

That they may be honored by men.  The word “honored” in Greek is doxazo, which is from doxa, “glory”.  This recalls 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

They have received their reward.  The Greek απεχουσιν (received) is a financial term referring to a payment that has been made in full.  “It expresses perfectly the crass commercial mentality of hypocrites” (MATTHEW, by John P. Meier, New Testament Message, Vol. 3, pg. 58).  The word is used again in verse 5 and 16 of this chapter, and only once more in Matthew, where it once again refers to-indeed almost defines-hypocrites  whose “hearts are (απεχουσιν) far from me” (15:8).

Mat 6:3  But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth.

Note the reference to doing (dost alms).

Lapide: I would say briefly, the meaning is as follows:-Avoid ostentation in thine alms and thy virtue, and as far as far as thou canst, seek for secrecy, that thou mayest not be seen by men, nor thy virtue talked about, that if per impossible, thy left hand could have eyes, it should not be able to see what good thy right hand doth, what, or how great alms thou dost bestow.

St Jerome: Virtue which is concealed rejoices in God as her judge.

Mat 6:4  That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

St Augustine says that at the Resurrection our Father will repay us openly for the alms given in secret.  “Thou shalt be blessed, because the poor have not wherewith to recompense thee; but there shall be a recompense given thee at the Resurrection of the just, when the Lord, as the Apostle says, ‘shall reveal the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the heart, and then shall every man have praise of God.'”

Repay thee.  Greek: apodidomi, to give back or repay (see Rom 2:6).  Proverbs: “He who guards your life knows what you did, and he will repay each according to his works” (Prov 24:12).

Mat 6:5  And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
Mat 6:6  But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret, and thy father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

From what has already been said about intentions this is obviously not a rejection of public prayer (see Acts 1:24; 4:23-31).

Juan de Maldonado: Christ does not command us literally to enter our chamber and shut the door, but to avoid the empty praise of men.  He, therefore, who prays in public, wishing to be seen and heard by none but God, or, if seen and heard by men, to be seen and heard not for his own praise but for the praise of God, prays in his own  (interior)chamber with the door shut.  For he does not seek his own praise more than if he prayed alone in his (literal) chamber.  On the other hand, they who pray alone with the door shut (in a literal chamber), wishing (desiring, hoping) men, however, to know it, pray in the streets and sound the trumpet before them, and the more they conceal themselves the more they are discovered.  Christ, therefore, does not do away with the custom confirmed by the laudable use of both Jews and Christians, of praying in public (1 Kings 8:1-30; Acts 1:24; 4:24; 6:6; 12:12).  He only corrects our motives.

Lapide: Sts Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose understand by chamber the heart or mind, and their privacy, as though he who prays should enter there and shut it, so that no distractions may creep in to draw away the soul from God.  As St Jerome says: Shut the door-i.e., shut thy lips and pray inwardly in thy mind, as Hannah, the mother of Samuel did”.  Hear St Ambrose: The Savior says, enter into thy chamber, not that which is enclosed by walls and which shuts up thy bodily limbs, but the chamber which is within thee, in which thy thoughts are enclosed.  This chamber for prayer is ever near thee, and ever private, of which there is no witness or judge but God alone.”

This being said, there is no reason to assume that praying in isolation is not also being recommended here.

Mat 6:16  And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
Mat 6:17  But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face;
Mat 6:18  That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

Bishop MacEvily:  Having given them instructions to avoid ostentation and vain glory in the practice of alms-deeds and prayer, our Lord now gives similar instructions regarding fasting.  He places prayer between alms-deeds and fasting, as they hold the place of the two wings whereby it is borne aloft.

When you fast. “Prayer without fasting is weak” (St John Chrysostom).

Disfigure their faces.  Juan de Maldonato: The meaning is that the hypocrites, so that they may appear to fast, change their natural and ruddy complexion, either from pretense or sadness, or by means of chemical applications, into a pale and sullen hue, contrarily to the custom of women, to appear more attractive.

That they may appear unto men to fast.  There may be a word play between “appear” (phainō) and “disfigure” (aphanizō)

Fasting is from the heart, not the face.  For a critique of worthless fasting see Isaiah 58:1-5, which is followed by positive teaching on fasting, which includes not only sharing food (58:7), but clothing as well, along with spending time and energy to relieve people burned by injustice.

The Catechism on fasting:

1430 Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance. 23

4 Responses to “Notes On Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 (For Ash Wednesday)”

  1. […] on Jeremiah « February 14th: Resources For Sunday Mass (Both forms of the Rite) Notes On Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 (For Ash Wednesday) […]

  2. […] My Notes on Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 for Ash Wednesday. Contains a brief introduction on how the Gospel is structured, then presents the structure of the Sermon on the Mount, then the commentary follows. ******************************************************************** […]

  3. […] Most Scripture links are to the RSV Anglicized Version. On occasion, the chapter and verse numbering in the RSV differs from that of the NAB, where this occurs, I also include a link to the NAB.  To see my notes on Matthew 6:-6, 16-18 for Ash Wednesday click here. […]

  4. […] Notes on Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25Cornelius a Lapide's Commentary on 2 Corinthians 1:18-22Notes On Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 (For Ash Wednesday)Notes On Joel 2:12-18 For Ash Wednesday (includes note on verse 19)Aquinas Catena Aurea on Mark […]

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