Matthew 6 and Righteousness

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4 (ESV)

The first clause of Matthew 6:1 rendered in Greek is:

Προσέχετε δὲ τὴν δικαιοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς

We see δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosune) as righteousness often in the New Testament, especially in the Pauline epistles. Paul typically uses it in its ordinary meaning of the “justice” or “judicial approval” of God towards those with faith and repentance. However, here in Matthew 6:1, we find that this meaning doesn’t quite fit, especially in the immediate context of the following verse, “when you give to the needy…”

Where else do we see δικαιοσύνην in use? The Septuagint provides us with a clue:

Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6 (ESV)

וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן בַּֽיהוָ֑ה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ לּ֖וֹ צְדָקָֽה (MT)

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην Genesis 15:6 (LXX)

Here, the translators of the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word צְדָקָה (tsedekah) to the Greek δικαιοσύνην – we can begin to see a connection with Matthew 6:1. However, that doesn’t tell us the whole story, because Genesis 15:6 employs the traditional judicial meaning. What’s the final connection? By the time of Jesus’ ministry, tsedekah in Hebrew had come to take on an idiomatic meaning of “charitable giving”, a meaning that is not reflected in the Greek. 1Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 109-111 You can see this by comparing versions… the NIV and ESV translate its usage in Matthew 6:1 literally as “righteousness” while others such as the World English Bible retain the idiom by rendering it as “charitable giving”.

What this demonstrates to us is that the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament may not always provide the bedrock meaning of the text. Jesus, speaking Hebrew, would have used the word tsedekah in a contemporary, idiomatic meaning, to have it later recorded in Greek as δικαιοσύνην due to the precedence given by the Septuagint. By the time it gets to us in English, the idiomatic meaning may be obscured based on the type of translation used.

Understanding the grammar of the Greek language used in our manuscripts is vital, but many times we can dig even deeper to see and hear the Hebrew spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries. Understanding this helps bring the text to life!

References   [ + ]

1. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 109-111

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