Do you want to know what a person is like, what his priorities are? We used to say, look at his checkbook, but now it would be his online banking statements! But the point is the same. Where you spend your money, and in particular, how you give money are important. In Matthew 6:1–4 Jesus tells you to seek, not your own honor, but the honor of your Father in heaven.
Give because you are children of your Father in heaven. The God who redeemed Israel provided for the poor. In Deuteronomy 15 God ordained sabbatical years in which debts were canceled. God also provided for the poor through gleaning (Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz), Deuteronomy 14:17–21. “Whenever Jesus speaks of ‘your Father in heaven’ . . . he has in view the exclusive relationship between the Lord and those who will share in the bliss of the kingdom of heaven, and share in it now already.” (Herman Ridderbos The Coming of the Kingdom.)
As those redeemed by Christ, provide for those in need. You are the recipient of a greater redemption. It was purchased at the price of Christ’s death. The church in Acts was marked by care for those in need. Diaconal giving continues to characterize Christ’s church.
Pursue your acts of righteousness in God’s presence. One of the themes of the Sermon on the Mount is that your righteousness must exceed that of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Matthew 5:20. Matthew 6:1 introduces three ways of expressing righteousness: giving, praying, and fasting. These deeds of righteousness are not performed to earn salvation (Jesus speaks of his hearers as already children of their Father in heaven), but as responses to God’s grace. Doing deeds of righteousness is how we live as God’s redeemed people.
Give secretly. Don’t sound any trumpets. Although the Pharisees in Jesus day may not have literally sounded trumpets as they gave, they made sure that people knew that they were giving. Look at the scene in which Jesus contrasts the widow’s tiny gift with the substantial gifts of the rich, Luke 21:1–4 Man-centered giving is essentially self-centered giving. It betrays a heart that refuses to focus beyond self. That can be true, ironically, even in the seemingly altruistic act of charitable contributions.
Don’t let your right hand know what the left is doing! Jesus is not discouraging giving. Instead, he is concerned that you do it properly. Jesus’ language is hyperbolic–not letting your left hand know what the right hand is doing. The point is that your giving should be quiet, private. Don’t keep even a personal, private record of things you have chalked up for yourself. The warning of our text may seem like a contradiction of the instruction in Matthew 5:16, where you are told to let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven. But the contradiction is only apparent. Your good life, including your giving, has the purpose of glorifying God. “The Christian is to live in such a way that men looking at him, and seeing the quality of his life, will glorify God. He must always remember at the same time that he is not to do things in order that he may attract attention to himself.” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.)
Honor your Father in heaven. Those who seek honor from men have been paid in full. Public, self-promoting giving is honored by men—and that fleeting respect is the extent of the giver’s reward. The attitude behind this kind of giving is similar to those straining to find exceptions to God’s law in Matthew 5.
You will receive your reward from your Father. Live transparently before your God. Verse 1 introduces three different ‘acts of righteousness’: giving, prayer, and fasting, and is concerned with your attitude in all three. (This is a better reading than ‘giving’ in v.1.) Christ calls you as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, to live with the purpose of glorifying and pleasing God, rather than man. That direction is seen not only in the ‘acts of righteousness’ in verses 2-18, but also in the laying up of treasures in heaven (verses 19-24) and the instruction not to worry, (verses 25-34). “There is therefore no doubt whatsoever that Jesus uses the idea of reward as an incentive to spur his disciples toward faithfulness and perseverance in pursuit of their calling. But he stated with equal forcefulness that those who do something to show off to others have already lost their reward from God. . . . [T]his kingdom is not purely a state of happiness consisting in external blessings but includes being a child of God and having purity of heart.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 234) The knowledge that your Father sees in secret, v.4, can be disturbing, see Psalm 139. A hypocrite may deceive other people, he may deceive even himself, but he cannot deceive God. The whole direction of your life needs to be God-centered. That runs counter to the hedonism of our culture. The Father has called you into a covenant relationship with him as the new Israel. In Jesus Christ he has given you your promised inheritance. Now he calls you to live as his covenant people to his glory. In that context rewards are favor shown by God to those who live in covenantal faithfulness to him. God has immeasurable glory laid up for you, his people. He calls you to faithful, conscientious, private stewardship as part of living as one who is the heir of the king. Life in God’s presence can be frightening, but for those who trust in Christ, it is full of comfort, as Psalm 139 points out.
Faithful, humble giving is something that your Father in heaven rewards. And the reward is not primarily some thing that you receive from him, but rather his own presence as your Father in heaven.