Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 6: 1-4
1. Beware lest ye do your alms before men, that you may be seen by them: otherwise you have not a reward with your Father who is in heaven. 2. Therefore, when thou doest alms, let there not be a sound of trumpets before thee, as hypocrites do in synagogues and in streets, that they may be glorified by men. Verily I say to you, They have their reward. 3. But when thou shalt do alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4. That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father, who seeth in secret, will reward thee openly.
1. Beware In this passage, Christ exhorts his people to devote themselves sincerely to good works; that is, to endeavor, with simplicity, to do what is right before God, and not to make a parade before men. 424 A very necessary admonition; for in all virtues the entrance of ambition is to be dreaded, and there is no work so laudable, as not to be in many instances corrupted and polluted by it. Under one class he lays down, by a synecdoche, a general doctrine: for he speaks of alms only, as he speaks shortly afterwards about prayers: though some copies, instead of ἐλεημοσύνην, alms, read δικαιοσύνην, righteousness, which is also the rendering of the old translator. But the difference is of little moment: for in either way there is no room to doubt, that the design is, to correct the disease of ambition, when, in doing what is right, we seek glory from men.
2. When thou doest alms He expressly reproves a long established custom, in which the desire of fame might not only be perceived by the eye, but felt by the hands. In places where streets or roads met, and in public situations, where large assemblies were wont to be held, they distributed alms to the poor. There was evident ostentation in that practice: for they sought crowded places, that they might be seen by multitudes, and, not satisfied with this, added even the sound of trumpets. 425 They pretended, no doubt, that it was to call the poor, as apologies are never wanting: but it was perfectly obvious, that they were hunting for applause and commendation. Now, when our service is rendered to the eyes of men, we do not submit our life to the judgment and approbation of God. Justly, therefore, does Christ say, that those persons, who exhibit themselves in this manner, have their reward: for they whose eyes are held by such vanity cannot look upon God.
For the same reason, all who are desirous of vain-glory are called hypocrites. Profane authors gave the name of ὑποκριταὶ, hypocrites, to those who personated assumed characters in plays and on the stage; and Scripture has applied this term to men who are double in heart and insincere. 426 There are various kinds of hypocrites. Some, though conscious of being very wicked, impudently give themselves out for good men before the world, and endeavor to conceal their vices, of which they have an inward conviction. Others allow themselves to proceed to such a pitch of audacity, that they venture to claim even perfect righteousness before God. Others do good, not from a desire to do what is right, nor on account of the glory of God, but only to obtain for themselves fame and a reputation for holiness. This last mentioned class Christ now describes, and he properly calls them hypocrites: for, having no proper object in view in the performance of good works, they assume a different character, that they may appear to be holy and sincere worshippers of God.
3. Let not thy left hand know By this expression he means, that we ought to be satisfied with having God for our only witness, and to be so earnestly desirous to obey him, that we shall not be carried away by any vanity. It frequently happens, that men sacrifice to themselves rather than to God. Christ therefore wishes, that we should not be distracted by indirect thoughts, but go straight to this object, that we may serve God with a pure conscience.
4. That thy alms may be in secret This statement appears to be opposed to many passages of Scripture, in which we are commanded to edify the brethren by good examples. But if we attend to the design of Christ, we must not give a more extensive meaning to the words. 427 He commands his disciples to devote themselves to good works purely, and without any ambition. In order to do this, he bids them turn away their eyes from the sight of men, and to reckon it enough that their duties are approved by God alone. Such simplicity of views does not at all interfere with anxiety and zeal to promote edification: and, indeed, a little before, he did not expressly forbid them to do good before men, but condemned ostentation.
Thy Father, who seeth in secret He silently glances at a kind of folly, which prevails everywhere among men, that they think they have lost their pains, if there have not been many spectators of their virtues. He tells them, that God does not need a strong light to perceive good actions: for those things, which appear to be buried in darkness, are open to his view. We have no reason, therefore, to suppose that what escapes the notice, and receives not the testimony of men, is lost: for “the Lord dwells in the thick darkness,” (2Ch 6:1.) A most appropriate remedy is thus applied for curing the disease of ambition, when he reminds us to fix our eye on God: for this banishes from our minds, and will utterly destroy, all vain-glory. — In the second clause, which immediately follows, Christ reminds us that, in looking for the reward of good works, we must wait patiently till the last day, the day of resurrection. Thy Father, says he, shall reward thee openly But when? It will be, when the dawn of the last day shall arise, by which all that is now hidden in darkness shall be revealed.
“Sans chercher la louange des hommes;” —”without seeking the praise of men?”
There is no necessity for giving a literal acceptation to the sounding of trumpets, particularly as no trace of such a practice, so far as we are aware, is to be found in history. Similar phrases are used, in many languages, to denote, that ostentation has been carried far beyond the bounds of ordinary propriety. — Ed.
This is the true etymology of the word, and rests, not on conjecture, but on historical facts. ̔Ψποκρίνεσθαι was used in the same sense as the more modern term ἀποκρίνεσθαι,, to reply. An actor was called ὁ ὑποκρινόμενος τῶ χορῶ, one who replies to the chorus, alluding to the form of the ancient dramas. The circuitous phrase was altered to ̔Ψποκριτὴς, which was, for some time, used occasionally in a good sense, to denote “one who assumed, for a temporary purpose, a character different from his own;” but came afterwards to be uniformly used in a bad sense, as denoting “one who assumed a character which did not belong to him.” It is a curious instance of the facility with which a word passes, by a few changes, into a meaning altogether different from what it originally bore; and may serve to show, how rashly some philologists have maintained, that in all the successive meanings of a word the generic idea may be traced. The second will resemble the first, and the third either the first or the second, and every new meaning will have an analogy to a former one, from which it has been derived: but it may happen that, ere long, all traces of the original meaning have disappeared. To reply and to be insincere are ideas which have no resemblance. — Ed.
“Verba longius trahere non oportet.” In some of the best Latin editions we find, “verba longius trahere nos oportet,” which entirely alters the meaning. But the discrepancy of the reading is set aside by the French version: “il ne faut point estendre les paroles plus avant;” — “we must not extend the words farther.” — Ed.