I want you to think back to a time when you did something nice for someone. Maybe you bought them a gift or had them over for dinner or helped them with a project of theirs. Now why did you do that nice thing? It may have been that you really like that person or you like spending time with them. Maybe you did it because it felt good in some way to do so. Now it is good to help others; don’t misunderstand me. But we have to be careful even in the good things we do since pride can sneak in those good things as well. When we give to those in need, we may feel smug because we know we did the right thing and we want God to take notice. And maybe if a few others know how kind or generous we were, well, that would be ok as well.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about the rewards disciples can expect to receive for doing good things. However, what is important for them to see is that they must be seeking the right rewards. If we do good things seeking a wrong reward, then we will lose the greatest reward of all from God. Let’s read Matthew 6:1-4.
I. First, Jesus speaks of doing “acts of righteousness” in verse 1.
What are these “acts of righteousness” Jesus speaks of? Most often in the ancient world, these refer to three things: giving, prayer and fasting. These were important parts of a person’s religious duties. But “acts of righteousness” also include many different religious actions or duties that the people of God were to do. “Acts of righteousness” are those good things that are done by believers as they live out their relationship with God.
However, Jesus here is not as concerned that these things are done as to how they are done. He says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” “To be seen” is the word from which we get our word “theater.” Jesus is referring to doing things just so that they will be noticed by other people. Jesus had already taught in Matthew 5:16 that we are to “let our light shine before men that they may see your good deeds.” So shouldn’t our good deeds be seen by others? However, there is an important difference here that we should note. In Matthew 5:16, the goal is to draw people’s attention to God so that they may “praise the Father in heaven.” In Matthew 6:1-4, Jesus is talking about people doing things so that they get the praise and glory, not God.
And Jesus says if our goal is to draw attention to ourselves so that we are praised, there will be no reward from the Father in heaven. The problem is seeking to glorify ourselves is a real temptation. It is said that after Martin Luther had finished preaching a sermon one day, one of his hearers said to him, “That was a wonderful sermon you just preached.” Luther replied, “Yes, I know. The devil just got through telling me the same thing.” We must seek to glorify God and not ourselves as we do our good things. Let’s look at how this applies to good work in the case of giving to the needy.
Giving to the poor is something God demands in his law as we see in Deuteronomy. It is also something Jesus encouraged in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Now the Jews generally did a very good job in caring for the poor. The problem was with the way some were doing this.
Jesus describes that improper way: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets.” There is some evidence that when a large gift was given the person was brought to the front of the synagogue to be recognized and honored. This may have been accompanied with the blowing of trumpets. It may also simply be Jesus’ way of symbolically describing the extremely showy way some people had of giving. Whether trumpets were blown or not, when some people gave, they made sure that everyone knew that they were giving. Even as they walked through the streets, which is where the poor would tend to be, they would make sure that all knew that they had given to help the poor. Jesus is saying that some were perverting their giving to the poor by seeking glory.
But Jesus also says that those who do this have already received their reward. The word used here refers to a receipt that a person would receive in a business deal. When we buy something, we receive a piece of paper, a receipt that states we have received what we paid for; it is all there. Jesus is saying that when people give their gifts in a showy way, they have received a receipt that says they have received all their reward now. Their reward is, of course, the recognition and honor of other people. Other people will think that they are great, noble and wonderful people. However, as Frederick Bruner writes: “Where people are made too much of up front, God leaves by the back. For good deeds cannot merit more than one reward; to gain it from man is to lose it from God.”
A modern day variation reflects a similar problem in seeking the wrong rewards. I read of one pastor who provided his congregation with a pledge card. If they agreed to tithe their income for the next 60 days, they signed the attached “divine guarantee” stub. If God had not blessed them by the end of the assigned period, the pastor would return the money in full. He based this on Malachi 3:10 – “Bring the whole tithe into the store-house, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” He interpreted “test me and see” as a “money-back, 60-day guarantee.” Giving purely for the reward of receiving more money is not a biblical principle. How then are disciples to give their gifts to the poor?
And remember, this applies to all acts of righteousness, not just giving to the poor. Jesus says, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” When we tie our shoes or button our clothes, one hand always “knows” what the other is doing. Jesus is saying that when we give our gifts, there is complete ignorance even between our hands. A part of ourselves doesn’t even know that we are doing an act of righteousness. So one point Jesus is making is that we should give with utmost secrecy.
Jesus first makes it clear that we are not to give so that others are impressed with our giving; here Jesus says we are to give so that not even we are impressed with our giving. We are to give so quietly that as soon as we give, instead of dwelling on it, we forget it. Matthew 25:37-39 is a good example of this in which Jesus welcomes the righteous to heaven as they ask: “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?” This is a person who at judgment day truly does not remember all the good things that he or she did. Jesus is saying that when we give, our goal should be to show mercy to the needy and not to receive any kind of personal acclaim for ourselves.
That has some important implications for today. I suspect most of us don’t write out a check with everyone watching and put it in the offering plate with great flourish. Most of us have been trained not to brag about the good that we do. However, we must admit that our motivations for giving may not always be pure. We give to a good cause and we tell ourselves that we are really good people for helping out in that way; we like to give ourselves some positive strokes if we help. We must do good but not in a way to impress others or ourselves, but give glory to God.
Donald Posterski tells of a woman he saw who gave in that way. He was visiting a man who had a street ministry to poor and hurting people. The man would buy them some hamburgers and haircuts with the limited funds he had. Posterski writes that several of them were sitting around a table as he talked about his street ministry. An older woman in the circle was particularly captivated by his desire to help those people. In a quiet and natural manner, she reached into her purse and took out a folded one-hundred-dollar bill that she kept for such occasions. With a smile on her face, she quietly reached across the table and pressed the bill into Darren’s hand with the statement, “I love what you are doing. Here’s a little something for a few more haircuts and maybe even a steak or two.”
Posterski writes, “I suspect that within the next day or two that same woman folded up another one-hundred-dollar bill so she could be prepared to give again. Carrying money in a secret place for the express purpose of giving it away is not only honorable, in today’s world it is distinctively Christian. The amount is not really the issue. It may be $1, $5, $20, $50 or $100. Living with an attitude that desires to respond is really what matters. Opportunities to act will abound.” My challenge to you is to do good prayerfully, joyously and generously as you serve God in this way but to do so in a way that glorifies God and not ourselves.
Jesus says, “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Jesus means that God the Father sees everything that goes on in our lives. He sees the gifts that people give to the poor. But he also especially sees the real reward we are hoping to gain from our giving. Our doing good is not to fuel our pride but to glorify God. And if we are giving with the proper attitude, God will reward us in the future. We don’t know what the future heavenly reward will be, but we can be assured that it will be far greater than anything we can imagine now.
But part of that reward is also knowing right now that God knows what we have done and he is pleased with it. Moreover, when we do things to help the needs of others and for the purpose of glorifying God, God gives himself more fully to us. And when we do good with the goal of glorifying God, we have the reward of a good conscience. We will know in our own hearts that what we have done was good even if no one else knows what we have done; we will know it. And we will have that satisfied feeling that God has used us to do what is good and that is different from pride in ourselves. It is the attitude of humble gratitude that God has used us.
Now can we ever say or think, “I’m proud of the work I have done in this thing?” We can feel good about doing what is right and good, but we should not view what we do as something we really did. Let’s never forget that it is God who moves us to do good things. Let’s never forget that God gives us the gifts and equips us to be able to do good. So we can be proud and we can glorify, but it should always be directed toward God. And so when you give to help others, we should humbly thank God for the opportunities to do good.
I read that the British preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife, Suzie, would sell, but refused to give away, the eggs their chickens laid. Even close relatives were told, “You may have them if you pay for them.” As a result some people labeled the Spurgeons greedy and grasping. They accepted the criticisms without defending themselves, and only after Mrs. Spurgeon died was the full story revealed. All the profits from the sale of eggs went to support two elderly widows. Because the Spurgeons were unwilling to let their left hand know what the right hand was doing, they endured the attacks in silence. I suspect, however, that they felt an inner satisfaction and reward from God knowing that they were doing what was right and God blessed them for that. If we give of ourselves to help others exclusively, giving God the glory, our reward will be a powerful and closer relationship with God.