God calls his children to reflect His character in all they do. Therefore their motives are more important than their actions. To be recognized for good deeds is undeniably rewarding. But if recognition is the primary motivation for the things we do our good deed flow from an evil heart. Here Jesus warns against pretentious piety and ostentatious charity because God looks at our motives before He sees our action. While man looks at outward appearances, God sees what is not recognizably visible, the heart (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7). God sees the secret motives of men’s hearts.
In His earthly ministry Jesus almost always rejected the religious leaders, not for their action, but for their motives. Charity (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15) and fasting (vv. 16-18) on the surface are praiseworthy deeds. But when deeds are promoted and published to garner the praise of men they are reflective of a heart devoid of righteousness. The religious leaders were rejected as hypocrites for their altruism. Hypocrites originally referred to Greek actors who wore different masks to play various roles. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders, most notably the Pharisees, for a particular form of hypocrisy: doing right things for the wrong reasons. Those who hunger and thirst for the praise and acclaim of men, although they may be satiated on earth, before God they will be as empty and hollow as the heart from which their deeds flowed.
The important lesson to learn is that God does not judge our actions per se. Actions are merely symptoms of the condition of our heart, whether in health producing righteousness or in depravity spewing toxically putrid waste (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19; Luke 6:45; Romans 10:10). To give as Jesus prescribed, so secretly that your right and left hands (which operate in concert) are unaware of the other’s deeds (v.3), is to give to the praise and honor of God. He gets the earthly (temporarily) credit. But He gives us the heavenly (eternal) reward.
In summary, we are not to be seduced by the temptation to work for the temporary praise of men. Instead we are encouraged to labor for God, who rewards both openly and eternally. When in all sincerity our deeds are to benefit others regardless of reward, God recognizes and rewards us with lasting honor. There were no loudspeakers in Herod’s court or spotlights on the cross. Jesus gave His life simply and secretly for the benefit of humanity. He died in disgrace, but was raised in honor. This is the essence of giving in secret. What is the motivation for your life’s work? Will you receive a lasting reward or limited acclaim? Do you work to win the attention of men or honor from God? You have been called to reflect His character in all you do.