Almsgiving

“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).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

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

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

“But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a shilling a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle; and to them he said, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.’
And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he saith unto them, ‘Why stand ye here all the day idle?’
They say unto him, ‘Because no man hath hired us.’
He saith unto them, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard.’
And when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.’
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a shilling. And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received every man a shilling.
And when they received it, they murmured against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a shilling? Take up that which is thine, and go thy way; it is my will to give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Or is thine eye evil, because I am good?’
So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 19:30-20:16).

When it comes to work and compensation, people tend to get very, very sensitive. Most people have some subjective standard in their minds regarding what types of effort are worth how much in compensation. For most people it is intolerable to think that some people are paid much to do quite little, and others are paid quite little to do much. Ultimately, for many, fairness and consistency is the key– if I work hard and do more than you do at the same job, I should get paid more, and you less. If we get paid the same, conventional wisdom says, I am being punished for doing more and you are rewarded for doing less. In such a circumstance I am better off doing less and making the same. Perhaps such logic is part of the reason why communism has not worked out so well in practice.

It is quite easy to translate such thoughts and feelings to the spiritual realm. Many would like to think that there are levels of reward in eternity. Those who did more should be more greatly rewarded, right? And those who did less should receive less, right? Surely those who did more should receive greater prominence, and those who did less should receive lesser prominence!

And yet Jesus overthrows this line of logic, just as He does with so many other expectations that humans have based upon how the world works. He presents a parable regarding workers in a vineyard, and the parable itself has a statement as its “bookends”– the last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 19:30, 20:16). This connects the parable with what came before– the distress of the rich young ruler, the declaration that what is impossible with man is possible with God, and that those who follow Jesus and sacrifice for doing so will receive a hundredfold in the “regeneration” or “new creation” (Greek palingenesia) and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-29). The rich may be humbled and the poor exalted, indeed, but Jesus wants one thing to be entirely clear: the Kingdom presents a very level playing field.

He communicates this through the parable. The sense of the story is easy enough to understand. In what was a very common circumstance in Jesus’ day, an owner of a vineyard hires men as day laborers to work the vineyard. He begins going around 6 in the morning and hires workers for a denarius— the average day’s wage for a laborer (Matthew 20:1-2). The money is not extravagant but is also not measly. Later in the day– at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm– the owner does the same, but does not specify the wage, but says he will give “what is right” (Matthew 20:3-5). He even goes out at the eleventh hour– 5pm, one hour before work tended to be finished for the day– and finds men idle, and hires them as well (Matthew 20:6-7). When the day was done and the wages were to be paid, the steward is instructed to begin with those who came at 5pm, and they received a denarius even though they worked but an hour (Matthew 20:9). Ostensibly those who began work from 9am through 3pm also received a denarius each.

And then we get the original workers– those who began working for the denarius. They have the same mentality we all have, and they start trusting in a vain hope. “Well,” they say, “he gave them a denarius. We have worked far longer than they have. We should be getting more!” But they also receive a denarius (Matthew 20:10). They do what any one of us would likely do– they began grumbling. This is patently unfair. “We” deserve more because they got what we got even though we worked more and/or harder. And so the workers grumble (Matthew 20:11-12).

Now comes the paradigm shift. We hear from the owner of the vineyard. He declares that he has done them no wrong, and in truth, he has not– he promised a denarius, they received a denarius (Matthew 20:13). The owner is in charge of the money and dictating how he will pay his workers, and if he wants to be generous toward those who worked less, who can tell him that he is wrong for doing so (Matthew 20:14-15)? The owner concludes, literally, by asking them if their eyes are evil because the owner is good– in effect, asking if they begrudge his generosity or are envious of it (Matthew 20:15)?

Many have extrapolated fancy ways of interpreting the parable. Some overlay Biblical history upon it, understanding the different laborers as successive periods of covenants between God and man, with the Gentiles coming in at the eleventh hour. Others look at it exclusively in terms of Jews and Gentiles. While such concepts are interesting, and it is true that the Gentiles are lately brought into the fold in which the Jews have been for generations (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18), such expositions are far from the heart and soul of this parable. We need not extrapolate periods of time or types of people to make sense of this parable– we just need to think about people!

The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom. The marketplace represents the world, and those in it waiting for work are those seeking the truth. Those entering the vineyard are those who obey Him. Some begin serving the Lord from a young age, working many years in the Kingdom, and God has promised them the hundredfold inheritance and eternal life (cf. Matthew 19:29). Others enter at various stages of life– in their 20s or 30s, or more toward middle age– and such are those entering the vineyard from 9am through 3pm. Some might come to the faith as older people or with very little time left on earth to serve God; such would be those coming at 5pm.

Ultimately, they all receive the same as what is promised to the first group. They all get the same reward– the denarius. It is not out of disrespect to the “original” workers but a reflection of the magnanimity and generosity of God the Master. This logic is offensive to the world but ought to be a source of joy to those in the Kingdom. It is not designed to be a damper on spirituality and spiritual growth– it should not lead anyone to assume that they can just squeak into the resurrection without diligently seeking to serve God. Quite the contrary (Matthew 7:21-23, 10:22, 19:16-26). Instead, this message is hope for the world. It does not matter whether you enter His vineyard at 9am or 5pm– the important thing is that you enter His vineyard, and once you are in it, to work diligently to serve the Master! Salvation can be had at any age– because salvation, ultimately, is more about what God has done for us and establishing that association with Him, and not about what we “deserve” based upon what we have done (Ephesians 2:1-18)!

In the resurrection all saints should be sated with glory beyond understanding and eternal life (Matthew 19:29, Romans 8:17-18). Those who worked for a long time and those who worked for a short time will both receive it. Let us praise God for the opportunity for salvation and eternal life and let us all be active in His vineyard!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

Paul’s bold declaration in Romans 1:16 has been popular among Christians for generations. His message is a rallying cry for faith and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Its message also represents a significant challenge: Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel, but what about us?

V&A - Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

Few are those who would directly admit that they are ashamed of the Gospel. We know that we should not directly contradict an Apostle! Our attitudes and actions, however, may tell a different story.

Our confidence and strength in the Gospel message is not tested among Christians in the assembly but out in the world. When we are in a group of people and spiritual matters are brought up, do we take the opportunity to speak of the truth or do we remain quiet? If we are around people who do not believe and are hostile to the truth, and they want to know if we are Christians and what we believe, do we boldly confess Jesus or do we make excuses? In our relationships with people of the world, do we ever find opportunities to talk about their spiritual condition, or are we too afraid that we are going to offend or cause discomfort?

Paul can declare that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because he attests to all the antagonism and violence he suffered on account of its message:

Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I more; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

He stood in the midst of hostile unbelievers and proclaimed the Gospel anyway. He endured beatings and imprisonments because of the message of the Gospel, and he proclaimed the Gospel anyway. Odds are that none of us will experience the kind of persecution that Paul endured; will that lead us to boldness in proclaiming the Gospel or will we become complacent?

Do we really believe that the Gospel is God’s power of salvation to everyone? If we make excuses and justify our fears and do not proclaim the message, we prove that we are ashamed of the message of Jesus Christ.

Consider: what if, during the night, you discover the cure for cancer? You know possess the knowledge that can lead to the end of suffering and death for millions of people around the world! What would you do with that knowledge? Would you keep it to yourself and not be a bother, or would you go out and proclaim it everywhere?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you kept it to yourself. What kind of person does such a thing? What would people think of you if they knew that you had, in your possession, the knowledge that would lead to the relief of thousands of people, and yet you did nothing with it? At best, you would be considered heartless and cruel. At worst, you are no better than a murderer!

While it is unlikely that you will discover the cure for cancer, if you are a Christian, you have in your possession the knowledge of how to overcome the most potent illness that has caused the most pain and misery in human history: the problem of sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23). You have the message of the Gospel, the message that can lead to the relief of billions of souls from the pain and slavery of sin and death (cf. Romans 1:16, 8:1-2). What kind of person are you if you keep that message to yourself?

Proclaiming the Gospel message involves personal risk. It will no doubt be uncomfortable at times. It may lead to rejection, insults, or mockery. In some cases, it could lead to physical punishment or even death. Nevertheless, the Gospel message remains the most important message that can be proclaimed, and God seeks people who are not ashamed of that message to send it out to every creature (cf. Mark 16:15-16). While the dangers are great, the rewards are far greater (cf. Romans 8:17-18). Let us boldly affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Christ, and lead those with whom we come into contact to the God who can deliver them!

Ethan R. Longhenry