“Beware of practicing your piety before men 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 alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
After Jesus teaches His disciples about anger, lust, adultery, divorce, lying, and hatred, He moves on to another meddlesome topic– money.
Did you hear about the hundred dollar bill and the dollar talking in the man’s wallet? The dollar asked the hundred, “What have you been up to lately?”
The hundred exuded, “Oh, I jetted to Europe, spent two weeks on the French Mediterranean coast. In Paris I bought a fine meal with wine, took in a show in London, then back to Chicago where I bought two tickets to see the Bulls. So, Dollar, where have you been lately?”
“Oh, the same old same old,” the dollar bill sighed. “I’ve been to church week after week.”
Money talks. And it sure talks when it goes to church. In the text Jesus explains.
In verse one, Christ talks about “practicing your piety.” This has to do with religious observances, Christian disciplines. And Jesus says, “Beware!” Be careful. It’s easy to become a “hypocrite” (verse 2). In the Greek, a “hypocrite” is an actor. They look genuine, but are really not. It is a show, a fake, pretend. And such empty piety, devoid of real worship, is the peril of all Christian people. “Beware,” Jesus said.
“When you give alms… ,” Jesus said. Not “if you give,” but “when you give… .” It is expected that Christians will give. The word “alms” means financial acts of charity, of love.
When my son was in the first grade his class was making valentines. They made one for each student, for the teacher, even for the headmaster. Then someone suggested they make one for God. So they did. “But how will we deliver it?” Someone mused. To which my son said, “That’s easy! We’ll just put it in the offering plate!” Our money can talk to God. It can be an act of worship when offered. It can whisper, “I love you. I believe in your kingdom. I want to be a part of your labors locally, in missions.”
Alms-giving not only speaks to God in worship, it also has something to say to people! Standing in line to get a prescription filled at a pharmacy, I noticed a poor looking farm lady and her son in front of me. The boy had a rash, a particularly itchy case of poison ivy. While he literally writhed in scratching, his mother presented the doctor’s papers to the clerk. The order was filled and the bill presented. The mother looked at the price, examined the contents of her slim purse, shook her head wearily, and turned away with her unsoothed child. That’s when another person in line stepped forward. “I’ll purchase that lotion,” she said. “Here, madam. This is a gift for your fine son. Be well. And she quickly walked away without even giving her name.
Giving alms to people speaks volumes. It says, “I love what God made in you. I care for your well-being.”
The Scriptures warn us not to seek “refuge in … wealth” (Psalm 52:7). It chides us saying, “You have given no water to the weary to drink and you have withheld bread from the hungry.” (Job 22:7). Thus God judges us saying, “In the fullness of His sufficiency He will be in straits.” (Job 20:22).
During the California gold rush of 1849 a steamboat loaded with miners struck a log in the river and quickly began to sink. Some men found safety in life boats. Others stripped themselves of their heavy clothing, dived into the river and swam for the shore. However, one of the miners lingered aboard the doomed vessel looting the other miner’s trunks. Having filled his pockets with gold, he leaped into the water and began frantically trying to swim for the shore. The weight in his pockets pulled him silently to a watery grave. Greed blinded him. He forgot money is only a tool. If you cling to it, money will pull you down.
Write this down and stick it in your hatband. We make a living by what we earn. But we make a life by what we give.
In verses 1 and 2 Jesus spoke of giving “ in order to be seen” and “that they may be praised by men.” It is true we can give for reasons of pride and human adulation.
Sometimes we give because we are forced to do so. For instance, at work the United Way Campaign begins. Someone sets a goal for 100% employee participation. And you are simply shamed into a pledge.
Other times we give to be seen. Recall that scene in the movie Gone With The Wind where at a Confederate ball an officer stands up to make an appeal for monies for the Rebel cause.
Everyone gives what they can. And one of the belles, her husband far away on a battlefield, takes off her wedding rings and offers them. Watching all this is Scarlett. Unhappily married herself, and all eyes upon her, she puts on quite a show by removing her rings and offering them for the southern cause. Such ostentatious giving is the bane of the church, too. It is giving more devoted to self than God.
Yet another reason we give is for pity’s sake. Television heralds the fly-encrusted faces and bloated bellies of famine victims in Africa. Morose music plays, and a somber voiced announcer gives out a telephone number to call in your pledge.
The real motive for giving is love. This motive and this motive alone will save us from the “what-a-good-boy-am-I” Little Jack Horner religion. The text mentions twice God the “Father.” He is the one we seek. He is our love. He is our devotion. He is our worship. What alms we give are for Him and Him alone.
T.S. Eliot, in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” And, thus, each time we give alms, Jesus is asking us to stop and consider our motives. Is it to be seen by men? To indulge our self-preening ego? Or is it to worship God?
One safeguard Jesus offers in all this is found in verses 3 and 4. Give “in secret,” and “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
When in Jesus’ day the pharisees gave alms they did so publically. A man might purchase a cart load of water, haul it to a village center, have a trumpeter blow a loud fanfare, and say aloud to the thirsty crowd, “Bless me who gives you this water. I am a true son of Israel, a keeper of the law!” And to the applause of the people, he strode away as they slaked their thirst.
We’ve all seen such public displays of piety. The newspapers are filled with smiling captains of industry presenting an oversized check to charity. And Jesus is saying, “Beware!” We in Christ are to do it differently.
Put up no plaques. Let there be no pictures on the walls. Do not name it after yourself. With no fanfare give, and give in quiet secrecy.
In the tiny rural Virginia village where I began my ordained ministry, the church treasurer came to me one day concerned. It seems one of the poor widows living in a cabin on the edge of poverty, had given a check to the church. “She doesn’t have it to give, Pastor.” So he asked me to visit, explain how the church was on her budget, and she didn’t have to give.
Well, I was young then and didn’t know any better. So I returned the widow’s check and explained how she didn’t need to give.
I’ll never forget how that old, old woman began to weep softly, and to me she confided, “I didn’t give it to you. I gave it to God, and now you’re taking away one of my last dignities.”
Indeed! Giving is a privilege. And three times in the text Christ the Lord mentions the word “reward.” It seems there is a reward for giving. Jesus very plainly says God rewards those who give Him the sort of service or piety or alms He desires.
In Acts 20:35 the apostle Paul quotes Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” How so? How are givers blessed? In Malachi 3:10 God challenges us to give and “…put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” This is the only place in the compass of Scripture where God invites His people to put Him to the test!
Giving Christians speak of God’s reward in terms of joy, a sense of dignity in being a part of God’s work, continued provision, things not wearing out, peace. Read the Scriptures through. You’ll see such rewards again and again.
“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verse 4)
In the next chapter we will look more deeply at all that that reward can be.
O my Father God, I commit it all to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.