Charity begins with motive.
Starting the second chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with this teaching, only found in Matthew:
Matthew 6.1 KWL
- “Watch out to not do your righteous acts before the people to be seen by them.
- Otherwise you won’t earn wages from your heavenly Father.”
Yeah, that’s the term Jesus used: Misthón/“wages.” It gets translated “reward” by various bibles (
Various stingy Christians claim God owes us nothing when we do good deeds. ’Cause we should be doing ’em anyway, right? True. But they’ve got the wrong mindset. We’re not just God’s kids, who work for him for free: We’re his employees, who work to further his kingdom because we have a stake in the company. Employees should be doing their job anyway—and they get paid for it. Same with us Christians: We work for God, and do what we oughta do for our Boss. And God doesn’t skimp on our wages.
Unless of course we’re not working for God, but for our own gain. Unless we’re not making him any profit, but swiping all that profit for ourselves. And this is what Jesus addresses in this lesson: Hypocrites who only do good deeds to make themselves look good. Ostensibly they work for God, but really they’re growing their own little fiefdoms instead of his kingdom.
There are three hypocritical practices Jesus objects to: Self-serving public charity, self-serving public prayer, and self-serving public fasting. Today I deal with the charity.
I already dealt with the fact Jesus’s objections appear to contradict what he previously said about us being the world’s light:
Matthew 5.16 KWL
- “So shine your light before the people so they could see your good works,
- and think well of your heavenly Father.”
The difference has to do with motive. If you’re doing ’em for God, good!—shine your light. If you’re doing ’em for praise, bad Christian!—human praise is all the earnings you’ll get. That’s the context.
And the way Jesus recommends we can best make sure we’re doing ’em for God—if we have any question about it—is to do these acts privately. If it’s public, it’s for the acclaim of others. If it’s private, only God sees it—’cause it’s only for him to see anyway.
Acts of charity.
In the original text, Jesus warns against doing one’s dikaiosýnin/“[acts of the] righteous” in public. In the sixth century, copies of the bible swapped this word for elehimosýnin/“[acts of the] merciful.” Both these words actually come up in the apocryphal book of Tobit:
Tobit 12.8 KWL
- “Goodness is prayer, with fasting, merciful acts, and righteous acts.
- So which is goodness: A few with moral acts, or many with immorality?
- Which is good: Doing merciful acts, or accumulating gold?”
Since Jesus objects to hypocritical prayer, fasting, and merciful/moral acts, I gotta wonder whether this passage from Tobit was anywhere in his mind. It may not be scripture (’cause it teaches we can be saved by doing charity instead of God’s grace—even though Raphael’s every act is gracious!), but it was part of first-century Jewish popular culture.
Anyway, elehimosýnin wormed its way into the Textus Receptus, the Greek NT translated by the
Acts of mercy imply these good deeds only apply to those who really need mercy: The needy. The destitute. The poor. The suffering. Like beggars. But Jesus didn’t only mean this type of good deed. It’s really any kind of good deed, done to any kind of needy person. Even the wealthy have needs sometimes, and if you do good deeds for them, that’s included in Jesus’s idea. And proud people of every economic status might hate to think of it as charity, but charity it is.
So that’s how I rendered it. “Charity” instead of just “righteous acts.”
Matthew 6.2-4 KWL
- 2 “So whenever you do charity, don’t toot your own horn,
- like hypocrites do in synagogue and on the street, so they can be praised by people.
- Amen, I promise you: They got their wages.
- 3 For you who do charity:
- Don’t have your left hand know what your right does, 4 so your charity can be private.
- Your Father, who sees what’s private, will compensate you.”
Now, did ancient hypocrites literally blow a trumpet in front of themselves, to get everyone’s attention every time they gave to the needy? Well, there actually are some scholars who speculate yeah, that’s exactly what Jesus meant. Maybe Pharisees, whenever they saw someone giving to the needy, honked their shofars so everybody could see the good example, and maybe do likewise. Thing is, there’s no historical evidence for it. Seriously, none. It’s speculation based on over-literalism. Jesus was just using hyperbole.
Where’d the hyperbole come from? Well, there’s the fact the priests blew shofars/trumpets during major festivals, and during just about every festival, people gave to charity. Or there’s the fact the offering-boxes at the temple were shaped like trumpets—and would make a whole lot of noise when people poured coins into ’em. Either way, drawing attention to yourself when you gave to the needy was a common practice in Jesus’s day. Same as today.
Like hypocrites in synagogue and on the street.
’Cause this is the sort of behavior we see among pagans. (Christians too, for that matter.) They give to the needy, then put out a press release. They start a charitable foundation, make sure everybody knows they’ve got one—that they’re charitable people. They make sure their good deeds don’t go unnoticed.
But the motive isn’t to bring glory to God. It’s why the foundations have their names on it: It’s to make people think, “What good people.”
Our best-known philanthropists aren’t doing their works for God. Oh, they might be Christian. They might justify their behavior by saying to themselves, “Well I am making my light shine before others, like Jesus said.” But are they known for being Christian? Are they known for their devout lifestyle outside of their public or business functions? Seldom.
So why are they doing their good deeds? Well, in the United States, your contributions to nonprofit organizations gets you a tax rebate. Give enough of your income away, and you won’t even owe taxes. Many wealthy people would much rather give their money to the needy than the government. So they do.
Thanks to class warfare, many people believe the rich tend to hoard their riches, so laws oughta be passed to whittle away at their wealth. And in order to prove they’re not hoarding, and that such laws aren’t necessary, certain wealthy people make a public display of giving to the needy: “Look, I don’t hoard my wealth.” It’s a relatively inexpensive act on their part. If you gave $10,000 a week to charity after charity, you’d look like a great philanthropist. Yet you’d only spend $520,000—just above a half million, not even a 15th of a $10 million income. Pocket change.
That’s the deal when hypocrites give to the needy. Costs ’em little. They never give till it hurts. If the budget ever gets tight, they’ll drop the impoverished children they sponsor long before they go without cable
In fact I’ve heard people use this reasoning to encourage other people to give: “It’ll cost you less than a cup of coffee per day to make such a huge impact.” Your charity will cost you little. No strain. No suffering. Just $2 or $3 a day, and you can feel like you’re doing something instead of nothing. And you can feel that good, and do nothing more. Hold on to your wealth, and use a tenth of a tithe to feel like you’ve gone far above and beyond the rest of humanity—which, sad to say, you have. What a bargain.
But Jesus calls ’em hypocrites. Not just because they’re pretending to do it for God, and not to salve their own consciences, or not to get public acclaim as good people. It’s because they’re usually giving so little. Only one out of five Christians actually support their churches. And if they’re so rarely giving to church, they’re definitely not giving anywhere else. So when they splurge, and stick a $50 bill in the Salvation Army kettle around Christmastime, don’t praise ’em too highly. That’s their $50 for the year.
Nope, charity isn’t a part of their daily life and their daily makeup. Charity’s a special occasion. The reason they make a fuss about it, is because of its rarity—“Look, I’m giving! (For once.)” If we gave all the time, we wouldn’t even think about giving a bit more. Our left hand wouldn’t know what our right was doing—because our hands are working automatically. Not so much secretively.
That should be our goal. Never publicity. Never to stop our consciences from bothering us. We give simply because God’s given us so much. We’re generous because we’re passing grace along. We love ’em enough to limit ourselves, to say, “I don’t need a new laptop this year,” and give like it’s not our money—’cause in a sense it’s really not.
And when God sees fit to give us public attention and praise for it—’cause sometimes is is the way he chooses to reward us—then okay. That’s up to him. Let’s not argue with his rewards, or focus on any rewards; let’s just focus on doing good deeds, and be pleased enough with the fact the needy are having their needs met, and people are praising God because of us.