“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1 NASB
No reward – The biblical idea of reward went through some development from Moses to Yeshua. Some of its development incorporated ideas from sources outside the Bible. But we should not make the mistake of concluding that the Western ideas of reward and punishment are the same as the biblical ideas. The difference is important, especially since our world is typically Greek in its thinking about reward.
The Greek word used in this passage is misthos. In Greek culture, this word implied almost all forms of payment or recompense for effort. But Greek philosophers rejected the idea that we should be motivated by rewards. Instead, they taught that the ultimate end of human effort is the experience of happiness for its own sake. Therefore, virtuous people are not motivated by reward for their efforts but rather by the law that harmony, the essence of happiness, is the only true good. Today we still incorporate to this thought when we complain that someone did something good only for the reward. Like the Greeks, we often think goodness itself should be the real motivator. Of course, our Greek cultural heritage is also laced with other ideas about reward, so we often find ourselves conflicted about what really matters.
The Hebrew idea is different. The Bible offers reward and punishment as clear motivators of human actions. God rewards the righteous, not just with some eternal blessing in a world to come, but here and now in this present reality. He also punishes here and now. There is, of course, a longer view than simply today and tomorrow, but the Bible does not dismiss the idea that we obey in order to be rewarded. Self-interest is not depreciated. By the time Yeshua taught, rabbinic Judaism expanded this idea to include the reward of the ‘olam ha’ba. It also viewed death as both punishment and atonement. But it never lost the sense that reward and punishment act as strong motivators in human affairs. The Bible simply does not have a Platonic view of goodness for goodness sake.
This helps us understand the apparent severity of Yeshua’s comment. Yeshua decries hypocrisy. He defines it as practicing what appears to be righteousness only for the sake of reward. His explanation makes it clear that there is a kind of reward that accompanies such acts. It is the reward of human recognition. But in Yeshua’s view, this amounts to nothing! It is misthos ouk echete (“reward not you will have”). The pay day of human acknowledgement doesn’t really count, no matter how noble the act appears. Yeshua asks for heart, not simply hand. That, by the way doesn’t mean a “spiritual” commitment is enough. Spiritual commitments do not feed the poor. But in a world where we often measure godly actions according to what we observe, Yeshua directs us to examine the action and the motivation.
We’ve heard all of this before. It isn’t hearing it again that makes the difference. The only difference is whether or not we will really examine why we do what we do. First, we don’t need to fret over the idea that rewards aren’t spiritual. Put aside that Greek notion. It’s perfectly proper to be motivated by rewards or punishments. But secondly, once we acknowledge that rewards do matter, the issue is one of true motivation. What reward are we really seeking? Where do we look for affirmation that we have done what we were asked to do? If we are motivated by self-interest, does that self-interest align with the Father’s will or are we seeking recognition from another source? This is not a simple matter to determine. The yetzer ha’ra is quite clever, capable of tinting even our purest motives with a hint of self-satisfaction. That’s where the instruction and guidance of our Rabbi Yeshua become essential. He pushes us to take the deepest look. And he does so by revealing a truly frightening possibility—that God will not acknowledge what we would use for self-glory.
Think about the last act of rightouesness you preformed. Think about your motivation. Was there any desire for recognition except from God? If you find something amiss, maybe that act will be a zero on the record and you will have to start over.
Topical Index: hypocrisy, recognition, reward, motivation, Matthew 6:1, misthos