"1 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. 2 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 received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus has been teaching His disciples about the nature of righteousness. In
the beatitudes He gave them a new understanding of who is blessed. To be blessed
is to know your longing and need for God and for His righteousness to fill
everything. We are blessed when we are willing to receive from God His life
for us, when we are willing to let Him tell us who we really are. This poverty
of spirit comes from a realization that everything else in this creation, including
ourselves, cannot get us life.
Jesus then went on to tell His listeners that true righteousness has to exceed
the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. He told them that He Himself
is the One who does this, who fulfills God's will for righteousness.
God's will for us is not just to do righteous things, but to be truly
set right from the inside out. He intends to satisfy our deepest, built-in
longing to see all things, all of creation, set right. And this He does in
Jesus, who takes on our fallen humanity and fulfills the whole will of God,
making all things right. In our poverty of spirit, in our longing for righteousness,
we receive and share in Jesus' righteousness which is partially and
imperfectly manifested in us now, but will, in the end, totally transform
us by the power of the Spirit into Christ's likeness.
Having spoken on the need to be truly righteous, Jesus gives several illustrations
to help His readers understand what this righteousness that exceeds that of
the scribes and Pharisees looks like. Righteousness is first of all living
in and enjoying the relationship with God for which we were created. From
there, true righteousness works itself out in truly right relationships with
others--right from our side regardless of how the other behaves towards us.
As we receive God's love and life to fill our poverty of spirit, He
gives us His righteousness, which involves a freedom to move towards others
with grace and love regardless of how they may regard and treat us. Jesus
concludes the section on true righteousness telling His hearers that God's
will for them is that they become perfect. God's love for us will not
be satisfied until we are complete and whole in Him. He loves us--to perfection.
Now Jesus turns to the practice of piety, as it is seen in almsgiving, prayer,
and fasting. Piety is the personal practice of one's faith. He begins
by speaking on almsgiving. Giving alms is providing for the needs of the poor.
It was a central practice to the Jews--their form of assistance to the poor,
since the government offered little or none. But it would seem by Jesus' words,
that this practice was now done by many in a public way that held the prospect
of gaining the giver the recognition and adulation of others.
The issue Jesus is dealing with in this passage is motive. Why do we give
to others who are less fortunate than ourselves? It would seem that Jesus
exposes an underlying motive to giving, namely having our generosity recognized
or acknowledged. We don't like giving in a vacuum--we want there to
be a return for our effort, a positive, affirming response.
What is interesting to see in this passage is that Jesus does not tell his
listeners that their desire for recognition is bad and that they should work
to rid themselves of it. Instead, He tells them that they are seeking recognition,
or reward, from the wrong place. How does Jesus motivate them to give their
alms in secret? He does so with the statement that "your Father who
sees in secret will reward you." Jesus tells His listeners, not that
they should not desire reward, but that they should desire the proper reward
for their deeds, from the only One who can give it.
Jesus reminds His listeners who God is. God is the Father who sees in secret.
We may be tempted at times to live as if God doesn't care about us personally,
that He is not watching, He is not paying attention to our lives. We begin
to live as if He is distant, and not close by, with us. Or we are tempted
to think that God doesn't really care about what we do, or if He does,
it is only to make sure that we are doing our job--but certainly not to reward
us! Can God be truly interested in rewarding us fragile creatures? According
to Jesus, yes, He is! We are not just His creatures, we are His children.
God is our Father. And as our Father He is intensely interested in us. He
is present even when no one else is. When we think no one is there and no
one cares, God our Father is watching, even in those secret places and moments.
Jesus wants to motivate His listeners by faith. He wants them to live out
of a counting on their Heavenly Father to be truly ever present and watchful.
Nothing is lost on God. He sees even the smallest acts of kindness or goodness
that we do. And, Jesus is saying, God takes our giving as if we are giving
to Him. He is the One who rewards us. This to me is truly amazing. God takes
me so seriously that He is willing to actually reward me--as if my small and
feeble gifts mean something to Him!
But what about this phrase "in secret"? Why does our Father see
in secret? Does this mean that when we are charitable in a public way, so
as to draw attention to ourselves, God does not see it? Apparently, this is
the case. God does not recognize and reward us when we are looking for the
approval and recognition of others for our deeds. If we hope to find our identity,
our significance from those around us, then we get only what they might be
able to give us, which often isn't much. There are great limitations
to what other human beings can provide for us in response to watching our
acts of generosity. Why are we so often tempted to ask others to give us a
feeling of value and purpose? As fallen human beings, they are suffering from
the same frailties and brokenness that we are and are often looking to us
for the same sense of significance that we are hoping to get from them. More
often than not, we stir up envy and jealousy in others when trying to show
how "giving and kind" we are.
Only God, our Father, can give to us the response that is truly fitting and
appropriate to our actions. Our almsgiving is meant to be one way we participate
in God's giving to His creation, giving to us. The Jews gave alms because
God commanded it, and He commanded it because of His concern for the poor,
a concern He desires that we share in. In our sharing with others, we come
to recognize that we too are dependent on the generosity of Another. We are
all receivers of grace, unable to give ourselves life and meaning. We can
give to others out of our counting on our heavenly Father to take care of
us, to truly be our Father. This is the right, appropriate reason to give
alms. When we give in a public way, for others to see and recognize, then
that is the reason we are giving. We are being charitable so that others will
be impressed. Such giving counts on , puts faith in, what other people can
give us. So God leaves us to receive whatever they may have to offer.
Jesus invites His listeners to give up the inadequate and elusive reward
they can receive from others and to give in such a way that they receive a
response from their Heavenly Father. Unlike humans, who only see each other
on display in public, God sees in secret because He is watching us, He is
paying attention to us. He can see what other cannot. He can see our hearts
as well as our acts.
What a tremendous freedom and assurance Jesus is speaking of here! God so
desires that we participate in His generosity by giving to others that He
is committed to being present and active in every action of our giving that
we do out of trust in Him. We can count on Him to be so interested and involved
in our charity that no small, quiet act of giving will go unnoticed by Him.
If we grab hold of this truth, we can be freed to give freely and joyfully,
never wondering or concerned about who might see or recognize its true value,
because we know God has already received the action and rewarded it. We can
always play to this audience of One, because He is always there.
There are many and varied ways we may try to let people know what we have
done and how hard we have worked so that they will appreciate us. What a waste
of time and energy! When I count on God to be intimately involved, interested,
and responsive in my life, I am free to give without regard to the circumstances.
Gaining the recognition of others becomes completely irrelevant. I don't
even need to pay particular attention to it myself. Jesus encourages His listeners
that when they give, "do not let your left hand know what your right
hand is doing." We can be so free of concern in our giving, that we
are not focusing on it, trying to give ourselves recognition and reward for
what we have done. We are to turn away from ourselves and rather focus on
and count on our Father to be the Father He reveals Himself to be.
God is not distant and slow to pay attention to us. He is present, near,
and ready to recognize and encourage any tiny step in His direction. With
a heavenly Father like this, we are free to enjoy giving to others with a
freedom and an abandon, because we know our Father receives it all and gives
us the response we so long for. He is willing to have our actions count and
be worthy of reward from Him. I have to wonder when I see this why I ever
settle for something so much less.
<< Back Next Sermon on the Mount Study >>