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Discourse on ostentation

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The discourse on ostentation, Matthew 6, is a section of the Sermon on the Mount, occurring after the antithesis of the Law, but before the discourse on judgementalism, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The discourse condemns ostentatious behaviour, particularly in religious matters, as well as arguing in support of asceticism. The discourse breaks down into four sections – on alms, on prayer, on fasting, and on materialism. Several logia from the discourse also appear in different contexts in the Gospel of Luke, as well as a few appearing in the Gospel of Thomas, and so redactionist scholars[who?] believe that many of these logia, the most famous of which is the Lord's prayer, have been taken originally from the Q document and placed by the author of Matthew in sufficiently close proximity to make them appear as a single discourse.


In the discussion of Alms, Jesus is presented by Matthew as condemning those making an overt show of giving alms, comparing people who do so to hypocrites (this term simply meant actor in Classical Greek, but had become more pejorative in the Koine Greek of NT), instead instructing that alms should be given secretly[1]. Quite what kind of charity is being referred to is somewhat difficult to discern, since some of the ancient manuscripts use the word dikaisune, which means charitable giving, but can also be used more broadly to refer to any act of piety, while other ancient manuscripts use eleemosune, which concretely refers specifically to alms-giving. Some scholars, such as Lewis, feel that dikaisune (the broader term) must be the original wording since eleemosune (specifically alms-giving) is mentioned in both groups of manuscripts on the line after the disputed one, and thus dikaisune being used here would leave both terms in the text, making it far more eloquent than just repetitively using eleemosune.

Jesus is specifically described by Matthew as stating that there would be no reward in heaven for those that give alms ostentatiously[2]. The word translated here as reward is actually a very specific Greek term for cancelled bills, here essentially meaning, according to Lewis, that those who give alms ostentatiously would not be paid in full when it came to heaven. Barclay considers that this condemns those that seek secular rewards for acting righteously but allows overt action that is seeking a divine reward, but most scholars and theologians disagree.

At the time it was widely held that the most pious form of charity was doing it secretly, there even being a Chamber of the Silent for this very purpose, and it is certainly not unique or original to Matthew. Matthew specifically describes Jesus as condemning those who blow trumpets during their giving of alms, and this is where the popular pejorative phrase blowing your own trumpet originates[3]. As recorded by Josephus, the alms-boxes in the Jewish Temple were in the shape of trumpets, and were literally referred to in the Talmud as trumpets, hence Matthew can be seen[by whom?] to be punningly referring to people who loudly (blew) added alms to these trumpets. In this era all were expected to contribute alms, an array of services for the poor were funded by them.

The discourse emphasises that one ought [not to] let your left hand know what the right hand does[4]. This fairly well known phrase has become a term of derision[by whom?] for organisations in which different members pursue contradictory goals, or where there is a remarkable lack of communication such as, for example, between marketing departments and craftsmen, leading to incompetence at producing the desired result. In Matthew, however, it is given quite the opposite attitude – that this ignorance is a good thing. Since, except in Schizophrenic-like mental illnesses, it is not really possible for one's hands to be made to act without an awareness of the other, the phrase is usually[by whom?] interpreted as a deliberate hyperbole. Some, such as Hendriksen, have proposed that this is condemnation of vanity – that when we act charitably (our right hand), we shouldn't view ourselves (our left hand) more favourably – but others, like Filson, disagree, and instead view it as condemning attempts to gain celebrity, public praise, for charitable action. Lewis has argued that the phrase ultimately originates from the Stoics, and was an example of how extreme we should be about not acting publicly – so non-public about being charitable that even our other hand ought not to know of it.


The second part of the discourse, much like the first condemns people who pray so that people might see them do so[5]. At that time, the official position of Jewish religion was that when it came time to pray, one ought to seek an inconspicuous corner to do so, quietly mumbling the prayer when in private, hence the condemnation of ostentatious prayer was very much a standard Jewish line to take. Mid-way through Luke, there is a parallel condemnation of public prayer, although it specifically attacks a particular pharisee who had sought out the most prominent position to begin his prayer[6]. Some theologians and religious groups[who?] do not interpret this as a total rejection of communal worship, since some form of community worship occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in a positive light, though these are not necessarily referring to communal prayer more than other forms of worship.

Like with alms, the discourse instructs that if one prays, then it must be done secretly in your inner chamber...having shut your door[7]. Schweizer feels that this is a reference to the storage room, and while most of Jesus' audiences would have lived in homes with only one room, in Palestine it was common to have a separate storage area to protect foodstuffs, which was the only room with a door. Other scholars think it simply means prayer in one's heart. The wording is similar to Isaiah 26:20, and Schweizer feels that the original wording was adjusted to match.

Also condemned is the practice of battalogein, apparently, according to Matthew, carried out by several gentile groups. This word is an hapax legomenon, and appears no-where else in any literature from the period or prior to it, and hence what it refers to is technically unknown. Nevertheless, the word is often assumed to be derived from batel, the Hebrew word for vain, together with polugein, a reference to large plurality, and hence is often translated as vain repetitions. This condemnation also appears in Luke, but without referring to gentile groups, instead condemning the rest of men. This has hence been often interpreted as condemnation of prayer-by-rote, and many, particularly Protestants, especially Martin Luther, have used this verse to attack certain practices of Catholic prayer, especially the use of rosaries. Amongst Jews of the first century, the prayer practices of other religions were portrayed either as repetitive incantations that needed to be recited exactly, which was condemned as being due to false gods not being able to respond the first time, or portrayed as a long list of nonsense, which was condemned as catch-all behaviour. Mantras and icons are a common practice of many eastern religions, and even of modern day Orthodox Christianity, and so the condemnation of such repetitive prayer is not always interpreted today in the same way as it would have been in first century Palestine.

Inserted into the midst of the discourse in Matthew against ostentation (part of the Sermon on the Mount), in the section discussing prayer, is an actual prayer, traditionally known as the Lord's prayer. The discourse in Matthew presents Jesus as instructing people to pray after the manner of this prayer, which some scholars interpret as an instruction that the lord's prayer is merely a general guideline, rather than, as is the opinion of the majority, a specific prayer to be used. The New Testament reports Jesus and the disciples praying on several occasions, but never describes them actually using this prayer, so it is uncertain how important it was originally viewed. A brief commentary (Matthew 6:14–15) follows the prayer, in which it states, expanding on a line of the prayer, that forgiving people who have trespassed against you is absolutely necessary before God would forgive you for your own trespass, which is also found in Mark 11:25–26, see also John 20:23. The word translated trespass here is different from that occurring in the prayer, and the brief commentary is often considered to have been appended to the prayer in order to make it possible to smoothly return to the discourse. The other possibility is that the "commentary" was the original, as for example claimed in Jewish Encyclopedia: Lord's Prayer: "On closer analysis it becomes apparent that the closing verses, Matt. vi. 14–15, refer solely to the prayer for forgiveness. Consequently the original passage was identical with Mark xi. 25; and the Lord's Prayer in its entirety is a later insertion in Matthew. Possibly the whole was taken over from the "Didache" (viii. 2), which in its original Jewish form may have contained the prayer exactly as "the disciples of John" were wont to recite it."

See also Prayer in the New Testament.


The third section of the discourse, concerning fasting, is the smallest. Fasting was seen as an important part of piety in this period, and all Jews were expected to fast on major holidays, such as Yom Kippur. Matthew describes Jesus as decrying those that make a public spectacle of their piety, and assures his followers that the only reward for such behaviour is public adulation, instead arguing that God will be able to see piety even if it is carried out in secret. Jesus is described as instructing people not to disfigure their faces, which may refer to putting ash on the face, a Jewish practice to publicly announce that one is fasting, which is barely preserved in Christianity, only really occurring for Ash Wednesday. Indeed, Matthew describes Jesus as instructing people to go further and hide any discomfort by anointing the head, and washing the face, which at the time were daily hygiene practices.


The final section of the discourse, concerning materialism, is its biggest. It begins by pointing out the futility of amassing treasure, when it erodes and decays, particularly moths destroying (natural) fabric, rust destroying (corrosive) metal, and thieves stealing what has been amassed. In that era, clothing was a major investment, and, since only natural fiber was available, its destruction by moths was quite a tragedy. The discourse asserts that spiritual investment cannot be threatened by others, and is hence secure, a somewhat rational argument similar to Pascal's Wager, though it neglects the consideration of evangelism, missionaries, and conversion, by other faiths. The metaphor of heaven as a storehouse for spiritual treasure is also found in several early first century Jewish works.

This is followed by a metaphor based on the ancient belief that the eye was the window of the soul. Essentially it states that a haplous eye will bring light into the body, while an evil eye will bring darkness. Haplous literally means single, but this leaves the metaphor quite obscure. Haplous can also mean generous, and hence the metaphor would mean that a generous soul (eye) receives light while a miserly one does not. In the Greek Septuagint, however, haplous is used to translate the Hebrew term which meant singleness of purpose, and so scholars who disagree with a command to generosity generally believe the metaphor to be referring to light being received by people who did not deviate from focus on God. A few scholars think that it was deliberately ambiguous between the two meanings, to argue both for generosity and for religious devotion. The metaphor of light as holiness and darkness as an evil is found in much ancient literature from the early church, such as the Qumran literature and the Gospel of John. Quite why it is in the discourse on materialism if it does not refer to generosity has a tendency to be a question that isn't addressed.

After this metaphor, materialism is presented as the polar opposite to spirituality, using the argument that no man can serve two masters, which has become well known. In Luke, this phrase is presented as a reference to servants, but in Matthew it uses terminology specifically pointing to slavery, and while labourers would frequently have more than one employer, it was more impossible for a slave to, hence Matthew's wording is generally seen by scholars as more plausibly the original. However, Acts mentions a slave that does have multiple masters, although reading the phrase as having the meaning no man can be equally loyal to two masters offers a way out of this counter argument, by arguing one master will eventually become the preferred one, this remains an implausible situation not an impossible one.

This argument is then spelt out explicitly as pointing to it being impossible for one to serve both God and Mammon. Given the context, Mammon is clearly used as a reference to materialism, greed, and lust for money. Traditionally Mammon was believed to be the name of a foreign deity, synonymous with greed, but no evidence has ever surfaced pointing to such a deity existing. It has consequently become uncertain from where the word originated, but it does appear to have been used as a synonym for money and possessions in other Jewish literature, though as a neutral term, sometimes seen as a good thing, such as using Mammon to make donations, and at other times, such as in the Book of Enoch, as a negative contrast to pursuit of holiness. Not being able to serve God and Mammon has often been used to condemn excessive consumption, the pursuit of wealth, and in mediaeval arguments about whether it was right for Bishops and Monks to enjoy wealth and high living, but most Protestant capitalists generally disagree with this interpretation, instead viewing it as a condemnation of applauding the pursuit of wealth, not the pursuit itself. Of course this draws a parallel with the previously mentioned admonitions in Matthew, with Jesus decrying public spectacles of charitable giving and piety, and assuring his followers that God will see and reward both when carried out in private. In other words, ostentatious displays are not relevant to God. Thus, superficially, can be seen the root of the Protestant capitalists view of overt and enthusiastic wealth accumulation as the 'evil' to be concerned about, not the accumulation itself. However, this view neglects the deeper Christian message regarding wealth; of materialism being an unhealthy competitor to the spirituality God wants humanity to embrace. Viewed in that light, Protestant Capitalism may be elevating one of Jesus' lessons at the expense of another, of equal or greater importance, perhaps so as not to be burdened by the sacrifices entailed with following the latter.

The discourse then argues that there is more to life than food and clothing, and that focusing on such things would distract from focusing on God. While most modern translations mention concern over both food and drink at this point, several ancient manuscripts lack mention of drink. The discourse expresses food's lack of importance by pointing out that birds don't farm, and nor do they perform agriculture, but they are still able to feed. Quite what the discourse is advocating is disputed by various groups, with some, attacking the discourse, seeing it as an argument for idleness, and others viewing it as a call for self-sufficiency or an argument in support of Seneca's desire to return to hunter gatherer behaviour. Usually, however, scholars interpret it as advocating a degree of asceticism, much like that practiced by the essenes, a group bearing some similarity to how Matthew presents Jesus, and possibly including mendicancy. That the discourse advocates viewing cares about food as unimportant by making this metaphor and then stating and are you not better than birds? is often viewed as evidence that Jews of the period were anthropocentric, and Christian theology certainly developed along such lines for many centuries, however it could also have the opposing intent – as mockery of anthropocentrism – that by farming and agriculture people are not better than birds, who get food apparently (according to zoological knowledge at the time) without this degree of effort.

Clothing, or rather being concerned about clothing, is attacked in the discourse by reference to lilies. Though the first few words of this attack have become a well known phrase – consider the lily, and lilies is the traditional translation, the Greek word is more ambiguous, and could mean, amongst others, the autumn crocus, scarlet poppy, Turk's cap lily, Anemone coronaria, narcissus, Gladiolus, or the iris. However, such dispute over the identity of a plant is unimportant, since it is not the type of plant but its supposed lack of toil and of spinning thread into clothes, that the discourse is concerned with. Although modern botany views the production of colour, leaves, and flowers, in plants, as a complex, and slow, bio-chemical and bio-mechanical process, this was not known at the time, and the sheer display of colour and shape by plants, regarded by the discourse as being greater than even the riches of Solomon's wardrobe, was considered effortless. Consider the lily... has since appeared frequently in art and literature: there is a film by this name; Keats' "Ode on Indolence" quotes the allegory; P.G. Wodehouse humorously uses the phrase "lilies of the field" to refer to the idle rich who do no labour; and writers such as Edith Wharton and A.M. Klein have directed the phrase at the rich and idle. The discourse though presents the supposed effortlessness of the lilies as a good thing, to be aimed for, though it points out that since grasses were burnt as fuel (in Palestine, at the time, wood was in short supply, while straw was more readily available), for bread, even the clothes that they produce for themselves are fleeting, and worthless on a larger scale.

In the discourse, anxiety itself is also attacked, by arguing that mere thought cannot add a cubit to one's helikia. Cubits were the Jewish unit of measure for length, approximately half a yard in size, and helikia is a Koine Greek often used to mean stature, hence several translators have this as a reference to worrying about one's height, when it isn't something that mere thought can alter. A cubit is quite a large amount on the scale of human stature, and so Fowler has argued that this reference is specifically directed to children desiring to be taller, rather than adults desiring to be giants, though it is possible that Jews were concerned by the greater average height of the Greeks, as Indo-Europeans had a greater statistical average height than Semitic groups, and frequently still do. Helika can also mean life span, and most modern Protestant translations, take this reading, leaving a puzzle as to how one could measure life span, a period of time, by a unit of length. To resolve this issue, some argue that a cubit of life was an expression for the small amount of time to walk the distance of a cubit – i.e that the argument is that thought can't even extend life by a minuscule amount, and hence anxiety is worthless, a sentiment with which most modern psychologists would agree.

The discourse concludes by instructing that instead of being anxious about material things, such as food, drink, and clothing, one should seek the kingdom of God, and since, according to the discourse, God knows that people need these things, God will provide them. Rather than kingdom of God, in several early manuscripts, particularly those that are regarded as more accurate elsewhere, the text just reads that one should seek the kingdom, though the significance of this is usually downplayed by scholars arguing that the two readings are essentially the same. In what appears to be a snipe at non-Jews, Matthew's version of the conclusion describes Gentiles as being anxious about such things, implying that their deities don't exist and so won't be able to provide for them, though some modern scholars, like Barclay, interpret that as implying that anxiety implies doubt in God, and hence is impious. Unlike Luke, Matthew adds that one ought also to seek God's righteousness, though many feel that Matthew has added this to strengthen the case for legalism.

As for anxiety in general, while Luke makes no such conclusion, Matthew adds that one ought not be anxious about tomorrow as the evil existing today is enough to worry about. This is often seen to be a rephrasing of the ancient carpe diem principle, though a few scholars, like Luz, interpret it as implying that each day is so overbearing in itself that it would be excessive to worry also about the future, indeed a few, like Fowler, even argue that the verse is condemning the presumption that one would survive the night.


Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Discourse on ostentation. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.Template:Ref-list


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  • Augsburger, Myron. Matthew. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982.
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  • Beare, Francis Wright. The Gospel According to Matthew. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1981.
  • Filson, Floyd V. A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew. London : A. & C. Black, 1960.
  • Fowler, Harold. The Gospel of Matthew: Volume One. Joplin: College Press, 1968
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  • Hendriksen, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • "Lilies in the Field." A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. David Lyle Jeffrey, general editor. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Lewis, Jack P. The Gospel According to Matthew. Austin, Texas: R.B. Sweet, 1976..
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary. trans. Wilhlem C. Linss. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
  • Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
Discourse on ostentation
Preceded by
Expounding of the Law
in the Sermon on the Mount
New Testament
Succeeded by
The Lord's Prayer
in the Sermon on the Mount

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