One phrase is repeated so often in Matthew chapter 6, as Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount, that it almost sounds like a refrain: “Thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6: 4, 6, 18). The point is clear. We are not to give alms, pray, fast, or be motivated to any good deed to be seen of men. The advice is especially telling to those of us living in a time when making a good impression and having a perfectly lovely self-image seem to be so important.
Appearances seem to matter, and impression management can become a full-time concern. It is the temptation to which the Zoramites fell. Hugh Nibley describes them: “Remember, they went to church once a week, and they bore their testimony, and they were very strict in dress regulations, and so forth. They were brave and courageous and enterprising and prosperous and all those other things–but this was what was wrong:… ‘They cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness…[with] their ringlets;…and their hearts are set upon them.” (Alma 31:27-28) Alma was appalled by this gross wickedness, which was essentially an appearance to be righteous while being fully preoccupied with self-magnification.
No deed motivated by self-enhancement is acceptable to the Lord, for it does not have the power to enlarge and clarify the soul. Focusing on appearances shrinks and confines us to the cell of self, bound by the praise or condemnation of others and our own reflection in the glass. Looking good and being important is a full-time job, draining our energy for other concerns like serving God and our fellows. The need is a hole that can never be completely filled. Only deeds motivated by an eye single to God can fill our souls with light to overflowing.
Christ says, “No man can serve two masters…Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6: 24). We cannot serve him and worldliness, for worldliness is a demanding taskmaster. It asks too much and puts us at odds with serving God. Perhaps that is why God reminds us both in verses 25 and 34 to “take no thought for the morrow.” Catherine Thomas, LDS scholar of ancient scripture, notes, “In these verses the Lord used the phrase “take no thought for,” a bland translation of the Greek word merimnesete, which means to be very anxious about something. He used the word six times in this passage. In effect he invited us to sacrifice our anxiety over the many elements of our lives that are beyond our control (such as adding a cubit to our stature– v.27), but that we think affect our well-being.
However, he implied that this sacrifice of fear is possible only if we first give up anger, lust, vengeance, and glory seeking, which in themselves produce fear. He pointed out that if we make the single aim of our lives the will of God and the promotion of the cause of Zion, those uncontrollable elements of life will, one day at a time, take care of themselves, and we can live knowing that the forces of the universe are working to our benefit. Matthew 6:34 translates the Greek word kakia as evil. The verse could be accurately translated, ‘Do not be unduly anxious about the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself; sufficient to the day are the problems (or troubles) thereof'”
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” with the kind of anxiousness that worldly mortals exhibit, and yet they are beautifully arrayed by a loving God. The fowls of the air sow not, but are fed. These are companion thoughts to the command for us to “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). This does not designate order in time–first seek God and then you can seek worldliness. It designates the complete focus of the soul; worldliness with its burdens is abandoned, and God’s way embraced.
It may take considerable faith to sacrifice the anxiety and worry that binds us to the world and mammon. (Note that this does not imply the sacrifice of work or preparation for the future.) The Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, however, makes this change and reminds us “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he not provide for you, if ye are not of little faith” (Matthew 6:30, changes italicized).
The reason we can sacrifice anxiety is because we are in the loving embrace of a Father who is an abundant giver, which is another dominant theme in these chapters of the sermon. “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matthew 7:9-11 The JST again adds a marvelous insight: “What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine?” (JST Matthew 7:17). We are not insecure in mortality; we only think we are.
Nibley, Hugh, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), pp. 103-4.
Thomas, Catherine, “The Sermon on the Mount: The Sacrifice of the Human Heart,” Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5, The Gospels (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), pp. 245-6.