“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).
What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?
Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).
Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?
Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.
Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).
Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.
Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.
Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).
We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).
Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.
We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.
Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!
Ethan R. Longhenry