GIVING — NOT TO BE NOTICED
Matthew 6:1-4 NET
1 “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 3 But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
We are beginning a study of Matthew’s sixth chapter today, which is the second of three chapters he reserves for Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Just before Jesus had begun to expound upon the principles of the kingdom, he told his apostles that “…unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The experts in the law and the Pharisees were considered to be the super-spiritual class. When someone thought of a saint, they thought of someone from these groups. When a person decided to devote themselves to the things of the Spirit, it was one of these people that he decided to mimic. But Jesus set the bar higher. He told his apostles that they had to be more spiritual that these with the reputation of being super-spiritual. In fact, if they decided to commit themselves to just doing what the experts in the law and the Pharisees were doing, then they would not even enter the kingdom.
Lange said that these super-spiritual in Jesus’ day ” imagined that they had reached the highest eminence in these three phases of spiritual life, which mark a right relationship toward our neighbor (alms-giving), toward God (prayer), and toward ourselves (fasting)” (122).
These super-spiritual saints of Jesus’ day wanted to cover all the bases of their obedience. They wanted to do their duty to everyone, and that was commendable. As MacLaren puts it, they wanted to practice “the beneficence which is (their) duty to (their) neighbour, the devotion which is (their) duty to God, and the abstinence which is (their) duty to (themselves)” (87).
But Jesus had already warned his apostles that that commitment was not enough. In today’s text, he explains why. These four verses specifically talk about charitable giving. Jesus explains why the charitable giving of these hypocrites was not a display of God’s kind of righteousness.
The hypocrites were not giving out of love (2).
They were giving, and giving is good — except when it is not. The hypocrites gave “so that people will praise them.” Parker says “The spring of all true service in Christ’s kingdom is love; whatever is less than this, though collateral and subsidiary, will be burnt up by the final fire” (63).
Jesus had specifically told his apostles to let their light shine before people, so that the people can see their good deeds and give honor to their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). So the hypocrites’ problem was not that they were giving in public. Nast says their problem was “ostentatious display before men, which is very forcibly expressed by the Greek πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι, for the purpose of being gazed at as a show” (261). There is a difference between giving in public and giving to be praised by the public.
Maas says “our alms-deeds must be done with as little ostentation as possible” (78). MacLaren says “Christ condemned ostentation. His followers too often try to make use of it” (89). I Googled ostentation. It is “pretentious and vulgar display, especially of wealth and luxury, intended to impress or attract notice.” When we give to our neighbor in order to impress our other neighbors, we are not giving out of love.
On the word hypocrites, Williams says it “was derived from one which meant to act upon the stage. A hypocrite was an actor. As stage-playing implied that the actor did not feel but only pretended to feel, so the Pharisees only pretended to feel for the poor, and were therefore called hypocrites” (82).
The hypocrites thought that giving itself would be rewarded by God (1).
Rice said “”The scribes, like the Moslems and Roman Catholics of now, held that alms-giving was meritorious before God. The rabbins said, ‘For one farthing given to the poor, a man will gain heaven.’ The names of large givers to the poor were announced in the synagogue. The religion of that day was ostentatious, for display. Jesus unmasks this pharisaical ‘acting’ in religion by setting over against it the spirit of true worship” (76).
If you give to the poor so that your name shows up on the plaque honoring the contributors, that’s great. Just don’t expect to be rewarded by God for the gift.
The hypocrites would get their reward from the ones they were trying to impress (2).
Jesus said that when these hypocrites give in order to be seen by people, they have their reward. The reputation that they were seeking would be all the reward they get.
Chamblin says “In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, trumpets were blown to announce times for prayer and fasting …, for worship and sacrifice, for feasting and celebrating.” There is no evidence, beyond that of verse 2, that almsgivers used real trumpets to summon the poor; and while there were horn-shaped chests in the temple and elsewhere for depositing offerings, the language of 6:2 does not suggest such an act.” The words, ‘Do not sound a trumpet before you,’ are in all probability a metaphor — one readily suggested by trumpets’ actual usage… and well suited (once captured by the imagination) for showing how ludicrous such a performance is” (392).
Livermore said “Our Lord had been speaking (in chapter 5) of the wrong construction put upon many of the Mosaic precepts by the Scribes and Pharisees; and he sets up a much higher and purer standard of virtue than theirs. He now proceeds to show that in their religious acts, as well as opinions, there was a corrupt motive; and that his disciples should act from far better principles” (87).
But for these hypocrites, Maclaren says “Their charity was no charity, for what they did was not to give, but to buy. Their gift was a speculation. They invested in charity, and looked for a profit of praise” (89).
The Bible does teach us to give to the needy.
“If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the LORD your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
“A generous person will be enriched, and the one who provides water for others will himself be satisfied” (Proverbs 11:25).
“I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:7-8).
We also have an example from Israelite history. David announced that he was going to contribute towards building a temple in Jerusalem — a project that his son Solomon would oversee. Then the Chronicler said this happened:
“The leaders of the families, the leaders of the Israelite tribes, the commanders of units of a thousand and a hundred, and the supervisors of the king’s work contributed willingly. They donated for the service of God’s temple 5,000 talents and ten thousand darics of gold, 10,000 talents of silver, 18,000 talents of bronze, and 100,000 talents of iron. All who possessed precious stones donated them to the treasury of the LORD’s temple, which was under the supervision of Jehiel the Gershonite. The people were delighted with their donations, for they contributed to the LORD with a willing attitude; King David was also very happy” (1 Chronicles 29:6-9). The people who had, gave, and gave willingly.
The apostle Paul tells us that New Testament churches should give like that:
“Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Jesus himself had taught this principle:
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).
Jesus also commended a poor widow who gave out of her poverty:
“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4).
So, Jesus is not discouraging giving, any more than he is discouraging the other visible displays of righteousness: praying (vss. 5-15) and fasting (vss. 16-18). But Harrington says “these acts of piety are really intended as worship of God, then they should be practiced without excessive display intended to impress other people. In each case—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—Jesus contrasts how the hypocrites do it and what their reward is (a reputation for piety), and how ‘you’ should do it and what your reward will be (from God)” (29).
Jesus commands us to be careful about how we give (1, 3-4).
The command from our Lord with reference to giving is “Be careful.” The Greek word is προσέχω, which means to be on the alert. He uses the same word when he tells us to “watch out for false prophets, who come to (us) in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). The idea is that there is a danger here, but it might be like those wolves. They come in sheep’s clothing, so they don’t look dangerous. That is why we need to be careful.
A packet of cigarettes does not look dangerous. But that is why the government requires that the manufacturer puts warning labels on them. There is a danger there. Everyone who ever smokes a cigarette does not immediately die of lung cancer. But that is why they are dangerous.
Jesus is telling us that our charitable giving should also have a warning label. It can be a sign of our love for God and our fellow humans. But it can also be an ostentatious display of our own pride, or seeking praise from others. So, Jesus says that when we do our giving, we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, so that our gift may be in secret. And our Father, who sees in secret, will reward us.
Before we drop that offering in the collection plate, we should ask if we are doing this as part of our worship. We should ask if we would still give the gift if there was no one around to see it. We should ask if there is a way to give that does not draw attention to ourselves. Our church has a benevolent fund that we use to help the needy in our community. No one knows who gives to this fund. It is a way helping us remove the wrong motives from our charitable giving. Those gifts help others, but our giving is between the Father and ourselves, which is the way it should be.
Chamblin, J K. Matthew: A Mentor Commentary. Fearn, Tain: Christian Focus Pub, 2010.
Harrington, Daniel J. Meeting St. Matthew Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010.
Lange, Johann Peter, and Philip Schaff. The Gospel According to Matthew. New York: C. Scribner, 1865.
Maas, A J. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: With an Explanatory and Critical Commentary. St. Louis, Mo: Herder, 1898
Maclaren, Alexander. The Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1892
Nast, Wilhelm. A Commentary on the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Cincinnati: Poe & Hitchcock, 1864.
Parker, Joseph. A Homiletic Analysis of the Gospel by Matthew. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1870.
Rice, Edwin W. Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew. Philadelphia: The American Sunday-school union, 1909.