Being paid with what you got coming

Being paid is a good thing, right?

Maybe. Depends what you’re paid with. Being given your just reward is generally not a pleasant thing.

In an American idiom, “getting what you got coming” is not necessarily a good thing, either. Generally, the expression is rather negative and results in discomfort for the one given the…well…the “gift.”

So, what type of reward does one get in Matthew 6:5-6? It turns out to depend on which word is being used.

Refe, on our share page, asks:

I was translating Mathew 6 and came across some interesting terms in vs. 5 and 6.

In v.5 Jesus says this of the hypocrites: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.

And in v.6 of his disciples: ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.

Both of the verbs used in these verses (apexw – ‘to receive in full’ and apodidwmi – ‘to pay what is due, to render account) seem to connote a sales transaction. Is this a reasonable reading of the text, or is it more appropriate to go with the softer semantic force of simply ‘to receive’ and ‘give’? If so, it seems to suggest that Jesus is presenting prayer as a kind of transactional process which adds an interesting color to the text.

Interesting question: Do ἀπέχω and ἀποδίδωμι frame the teaching in terms of a “business transaction”?

Here’s something more:

ἀπέχω appears to also have the sense of “to hold something/someone at a distance.”

ἀποδίδωμι appears to also have the sense of “return” or “restore” in the sense that when a transaction is complete, the former situation is restored.

So, could there be a bit more going on here than what translation usually convey?

The NIV1984 renders both words with ‘reward‘ which somewhat hides the distinction. I don’t want to distract from Refe’s question, but in this context, might “they have been paid, but kept at a distance” convey the sense well for ἀπέχω. And, “the Father will restore by paying the difference” convey the sense well for ἀποδίδωμι? I haven’t thought through these suggestions much. I’m just throwing them on the table to generate some discussion.

So, another question is: Could the original text be conveying some information about the resulting relationship between the debtor and the one to whom the debt is paid?

Thanks for the question Refe. For others who have asked questions on the share page….give us a little time. You are not missed! 🙂

9 thoughts on “Being paid with what you got coming

  1. Iver Larsen says:


    You have already given a good rendering of the two words:

    ἀπέχω – ‘to receive in full’ and
    ἀποδίδωμι – ‘to pay what is due, to render account.’

    The key point in the first one is the word “full”. Something has been taken to its completion and logical end. As NLT puts it: “that is all the reward they will ever get.” It can be used in a business context, but does not have to, and these verses are not set in a business context. Even the English “pay back” is not limited to money or business.

    The second word implies that the giver has an obligation to give. It may refer to paying back a debt, but does not have to, and there is no business transaction implied here. However, it looks to me that the word used here implies that God owns up to an obligation to respond. It is used in the other direction in Mat 5:33: If you have made a promise to God, you are obligated to keep it.
    In Matt 20:8 the workers have put in a days work, so the owner is obligated to pay them their dues.

    It is also used in Matt 22:21: Render to Caesar what is due to him (money/taxes with his image and inscription on), and render to God what is due to him (your very lives with God’s image imprinted on them).

    An interesting one is Acts 4:33. “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” (RSV). A small nuance is missing here in all translations. They had an obligation to give their testimony. Paul expressed such an obligation several times.

    Rom 12:17 has the same idea, but in the sense of a lack of obligation: Don’t pay back evil with evil to anyone (you are under no obligation to revenge yourself.)

  2. Refe says:

    It’s that idea of obligation that interests me. I don’t mean that it is a literal business situation of course, but that Jesus is using transactional terms that convey the idea that when we pray God considers it an ‘obligation’ to respond in some way, or that when his people pray the transactional result is a response from God.

    Using the word ‘reward’ alone seems to miss that sense, but using a word like ‘payment’ seems like it takes it too far forward in the translation. I wonder if there is a happy medium.

    “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they might be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their full benefit (from this). But when you pray, go into your closet and after shutting the door pray to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you accordingly.”

    ‘Benefit’ seems to convey that whatever the hypocrites were to gain from their prayer-performances they have already received in the attention of men. And ‘reward accordingly’ (hopefully) conveys a hint of the the transactional sense of ἀποδίδωμι without taking it too far. So, the reward was given in response to the prayer.

  3. Yancy Smith says:

    The statement that the Father will reward correct prayers, for which we are “indebted” to the symmetry of the strophes in Matthew 6:5-6, is indeed very troublesome from an Evangelical point of view. I don’t think it will do to deny that Matthew intended to conjure up a mercantile frame with his words.

    Even though the term ἀποδίδωμι has the connotation of obligation in this text, the term ἀποδίδωμι does not, however, necessarily have “obligation” as a component of its semantics. For example, Iver brings up Acts 4:33. The connotation of obligation here it is less strongly signaled but may be a part of the poetic effects of the text or not. The Apostles had been required to testify before the Sanhedron (4:7). Then in v. 17 they were ordered not to bear witness to Jesus any more. To this they responded in defiance, since they considered it not right to listen to people rather than God.” Their continuing to speak out as witnesses in verse 33 seems to be less a funtion of obligation than of boldness (4:31) in defiance of the gag order. But maybe they needed the grace of boldness to fulfill the obligation they felt? Or is their a shade of the notion natural outcome and expectancy attached to ἀποδίδωμι in agricultural contexts such as Rev. 22:2? “Yield its fruit.” The connotation obligation or joyful fulfillment of expectation is a shade or a hue for which the interpreter must take responsibility, one best left in the background when translating lest what is unmarked become overly marked.

    The problem with Matthew is not so much a translation problem, but a theological problem. Iver suggests that the “the word used here implies that God owns up to an obligation to respond.” But that move is far too general and seems designed to make Jesus fit an Evangelical mold. Against this I would say that the text implies that the Father owns up to a responsibility to reward one who prays in this way, pure and simple. But what is the implication of this? Not what Iver says. Of course Christians have almost never read this text literally. The church’s interpretation tried explicitly to exempt Christian community prayer from the critical questions posed by the text. However, it was simply taken for granted that Jesus issued a wholesale condemnation of the Jewish practice of prayer. Karl Barth struggled with the implications of this passage and argued that Jesus was condemning the use of prayer for any other purpose than addressing God, that prayer for any other use is no prayer at all. I don’t think that is entirely helpful in general, but may be the specific point here made by way of exaggeration. St. Paul, for example, uses prayer in most of his epistles as a way of preaching or communicating with his audience. There has been a sad tendency to use this passage to condemn Jewish prayers completely, based on this passage, a part of the continuing saga of Christian anti-Semitism. For, example, some scholars might still be holding out for evidence that Jews actually blew trumpets to announce their giving (as in Matthew 6:2) instead of accepting that Jesus engaged in exaggeration to make his point at times.

    What’s the point? God will reward you if you are not looking for a reward. Pray sincerely, not as a hypocrite. No one can feel too comfortable with that teaching.

    Reference: Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew 1-7 : A Commentary on Matthew 1-7 (Rev. ed.;, Hermeneia–a critical and historical commentary on the Bible Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 302.

  4. Iver Larsen says:


    I am hesitant to suggest an English translation, since that is not my language. I am not sure what comes to the mind of the reader/hearer if you add “accordingly”. I would prefer to keep the normal translation and just say: “God will reward you.”

    BDAG list several senses, two of which may be relevant here:

    ② to meet a contractual or other obligation, pay, pay out, fulfill.
    (They put Acts 4:33 under this sense.)

    ④ to recompense, whether in a good or bad sense, render, reward, recompense
    (They put Matt 6:4,6,18 and many others here.)

    I noticed that KJV said “reward you openly”. This highlights the contrast to secretly, but I am not sure that this is a justified addition. They were probably trying to capture the APO- prefix. Or they might be thinking of the reward at the end of times.

    Yancy comments from a theological and church history perspective whereas I am more interested in the lingustic usage of words in the original contexts. I don’t know what an American evangelical position is, and I doubt that it would be uniform.

    It seems to me that the main point is where your focus is. The hypocrites were praying to God, but their focus was to show off and get recognition from people. Their attention and allegiance was divided. Jesus is making a contrast to that. Focus exclusively and “singly” on your Father who is unseen and pray in your room by yourself. Then you are not tempted to play for the gallery. (This does not rule out communal prayer, but that is another topic.)

    The same contrast is repeated in 6:16,18 about fasting. And I see the same topic in the whole chapter: Focus on God, your Father in Heaven, seek his Kingdom and look to him to take care of you, rather than focusing on your own abilities and seeking to be rewarded by people.

  5. John Radcliffe says:

    Iver said:

    “I noticed that KJV said ‘reward you openly’. This highlights the contrast to secretly, but I am not sure that this is a justified addition. They were probably trying to capture the APO- prefix. Or they might be thinking of the reward at the end of times.”

    The KJV follows a Greek text here that has EN TW FANERW at the end of the verse (similarly in v4).

  6. Gary Simmons says:

    Mike and Iver: Perhaps we’re looking at the wrong sense of ἀποδίδωμι when we assume its use by Jesus is strictly a mercantile metaphor. Here’s LXX Joel 4:1-8 (Otherwise known as 3:1-8).

    Διότι ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις καὶ ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ, ὅταν ἐπιστρέψω τὴν αἰχμαλωσίαν Ιουδα καὶ Ιερουσαλημ, 2 καὶ συνάξω πάντα τὰ ἔθνη καὶ κατάξω αὐτὰ εἰς τὴν κοιλάδα Ιωσαφατ καὶ διακριθήσομαι πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαοῦ μου καὶ τῆς κληρονομίας μου Ισραηλ, οἳ διεσπάρησαν ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν· καὶ τὴν γῆν μου καταδιείλαντο 3 καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν λαόν μου ἔβαλον κλήρους καὶ ἔδωκαν τὰ παιδάρια πόρναις καὶ τὰ κοράσια ἐπώλουν ἀντὶ οἴνου καὶ ἔπινον. 4 καὶ τί καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐμοί, Τύρος καὶ Σιδὼν καὶ πᾶσα Γαλιλαία ἀλλοφύλων; μὴ ἀνταπόδομα ὑμεῖς ἀνταποδίδοτέ μοι; ἢ μνησικακεῖτε ὑμεῖς ἐπ᾽ ἐμοὶ ὀξέως; καὶ ταχέως ἀνταποδώσω τὸ ἀνταπόδομα ὑμῶν εἰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν, 5 ἀνθ᾽ ὧν τὸ ἀργύριόν μου καὶ τὸ χρυσίον μου ἐλάβετε καὶ τὰ ἐπίλεκτά μου καὶ τὰ καλὰ εἰσηνέγκατε εἰς τοὺς ναοὺς ὑμῶν 6 καὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς Ιουδα καὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς Ιερουσαλημ ἀπέδοσθε τοῖς υἱοῖς τῶν ῾Ελλήνων, ὅπως ἐξώσητε αὐτοὺς ἐκ τῶν ὁρίων αὐτῶν. 7 ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξεγείρω αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ τόπου, οὗ ἀπέδοσθε αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ, καὶ ἀνταποδώσω τὸ ἀνταπόδομα ὑμῶν εἰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν 8 καὶ ἀποδώσομαι τοὺς υἱοὺς ὑμῶν καὶ τὰς θυγατέρας ὑμῶν εἰς χεῖρας υἱῶν Ιουδα, καὶ ἀποδώσονται αὐτοὺς εἰς αἰχμαλωσίαν εἰς ἔθνος μακρὰν ἀπέχον, ὅτι κύριος ἐλάλησεν.

    Here it would seem ἀποδίδωμι is used to refer to judging in a semi-mercantile frame. Perhaps this is because the coastland cities of Tyre and Sidon were attacking Israel for profit, they’re gonna get the ἀνταπόδομα they deserve for that. Perhaps Jesus, as portrayed by Matthew, is likewise using mercantile language partly because Jesus is also addressing the issue of inappropriate conduct done for profit. (Or perhaps because Matthew was a tax collector he just thought in those terms.)

    Sometimes I wonder if ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν is meant in a more ominous sense: “they’ll get what’s coming to them” in final judgment. But, more likely, I think it’s best rendered as something like “they’ve got all the reward they’re gonna get.” If we’re going to try to keep the transactional language intact in translation, we’d best render verse 12 somewhere along the lines of “and release us of our debts, as we have released those who owe us.”

    Yancy: How strange that you would argue Matthew has a God-is-a-vending-machine understanding of prayer, contra the general tenor of Scripture. While that would certainly help one fit Matthew into a reductionist’s/errantist’s mold, I don’t think that assertion holds well to closer scrutiny, even within Matthew 1-7.

    The Lord’s Prayer does not solely involve requests for services God may render to the one praying, but focuses in the very beginning on God’s glorification through his own self-disclosure and exaltation in worship. Jesus’ teaching in vv. 14f make it clear that Jesus, as presented by Matthew, intended this prayer as primarily focusing on forgiveness for others. There is no impression here that the Deity is bound in obligation to give stuff, or that getting stuff from God is Matthew’s only idea of prayer.

    Now, when we get to chapter 7, things get more interesting. 7:7-11 repeat the point at the end of the previous chapter that if you rely on God, you’ll be taken care of. There is a sense of duty or obligation here, as a father has for his children, but that image is in stark contrast to the business transaction model. I don’t think it will do to deny that Matthew intended to indicate that God is obliged to act in accordance with his inherent nature as kind and giving, whether the controlling image is a business transaction or familial relations.

    Oh, and it certainly won’t do to forget the giving-centered teachings of Matthew 5:38-48. Here God is described as giving life-giving rain and sunlight even to his enemies, and thus we should do the same. If God is really that giving even to those who don’t pray, then answering prayers is not truly a business transaction any more than God is literally a male sexual progenitor.

    What’s wrong with admitting that the text has metaphors in it, Yancy?

  7. Yancy Smith says:

    Yancy: How strange that you would argue Matthew has a God-is-a-vending-machine understanding of prayer, contra the general tenor of Scripture. … What’s wrong with admitting that the text has metaphors in it, Yancy?

    By the way, I thank the site manager for cleaning up my messy prose. No vending machine image was implied by Jesus, as far as I can tell. Rather, something more covenantal like Ps 50:15 Call on me in the day of trouble;
    I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

    If there is anything like “a general tenor” in Scripture that has to do with prayer and reward, it is the tenor emerging from the tendency of a gracious God who makes covenants, that is, the God who promises and binds Godself with obligations, into which God freely and graciously. But the social implications of Matthew 5-7 are perhaps more germane to the mercantile frame. And Gary, you are right that the frame itself is metaphorical and implies a relationship. No problem there. What seems to be implied socially is, however, a situation in which some (the religious haves) are persecuting the have nots (5:1-13). The religious haves—the wealthy “in spirit” have an approach to prayer as a status marker, worn much like clothing. In the ancient world “clothes make the man” was much more a true indicator of status. Prayer was a way of asserting “righteousness” within the covenant based upon what seemed to them a quite obvious election by God. The assumption being that their status as Pharisees rightly expressed in everything from clothing to their choice of dinner guests solidified their status with God as well. The idea was, the way things are is simply an expression of the will of God. Public prayer behavior rewarded and substantiated their self-promotion with more self-promotion in an endless feedback loop. Everything is locked down. Slaves continue to be slaves, the poor continue to be poor. Men are justified in dispensing with women at a whim. But the status quo was a sort of hell for the disadvantaged (the poor, the women, the slaves). Jesus came along and said, in effect, subvert the whole thing. Don’t participate. Go into your closet and pray in secret. And your heavenly Father will reward you.
    Similar are the words of the prophet Zephaniah,
    Zeph. 2:3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
    who do his commands;
    seek righteousness, seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the LORD’S wrath.

    What is the reward? Well, one can see in Jesus teaching that the poor and persecuted have God as Father. That is a primary reward. Nevertheless one should not neglect eschatological reward in the spirit of Zephaniah’s “hidden on the day of the LORD’S wrath.”

    So, I guess I’m saying that the mercantile frame is not inconsequential, but not the largest frame. The larger frame continues to be the that of the eschatology that becomes increasingly clear, especially in Matthew 24. So the mercantile frame is based upon Jewish covenant theology and reframed by the call of Jesus, “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

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