Charity for God, versus charity for public approval.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September

Matthew 6.1-4.

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 get credit from your heavenly Father.”

The term Jesus used is μισθὸν/misthón, “compensation.” It’s a synonym for wages. But it gets translated “reward” by various bibles (KJV, ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV), which gives people the wrong idea. When the King James Version was published in 1611, “reward” meant something you earned through your efforts. Today it means a prize you get for stumbling across a missing person or thing. But a misthón is earned, like Paul said. Ro 4.4 Laborers don’t win their wages; they deserve ’em. Lk 10.7, 1Ti 5.18

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 in the Sermon: 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 get. That’s the context.

And the way Jesus recommends we 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 δικαιοσύνην/dikeosýnin, “righteous [acts]” in public. In the sixth century, copies of the bible swapped this word for ἐλεημοσύνην/elehimosýnin, “merciful [acts],” which is what we find in the Textus Receptus. 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 straight-up 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.

The KJV translates elehimosýnin as “alms,” the pocket change given to beggars of any century. And “alms” implies these good deeds are only about giving to the needy, destitute, poor, suffering—you know, 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 credit.
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 credit 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, some scholars actually speculate yeah, that’s exactly what Jesus meant. The way they describe it, whenever Pharisees saw someone giving to the needy, they honked a shofar/trumpet 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 how the offering-boxes at temple were shaped like shofars—and would make a whole lot of noise whenever 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 the philanthropists’ names on it: It’s to make people think, “What good people.”

Our best-known philanthropists aren’t really 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 to the government. So they do.

Thanks to class warfare, many people believe the rich hoard their wealth, and demand laws be passed to whittle away at this wealth. And in order to prove they’re not hoarding, that such laws aren’t necessary, many wealthy people make a public display of giving to charity: “Look, I don’t hoard my wealth.” But it’s a relatively inexpensive act on their part. Say a billionaire gives away $10,000 a week. Sounds generous? But to them it’s pocket change. They only spend $520,000 a year, but a true tithe of a billion dollars is actually $100 million. Are any billionaires giving away $100 million? Any of them?

That’s the deal when hypocrites give to the needy. For most, it costs ’em little. They never give till it hurts. If the budget ever got tight, they drop the charities long before they’d go without their luxuries. They’ll cut back on donations long before they cut back on their groceries. They might alleviate others’ hardship, but they’ll never share it. “Moral support” is the furthest they’ll go; they’ll feel bad. But rarely self-deprived. Rarely sacrifice.

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. You can feel good about yourself… 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 kinda have. But what a bargain!

And Jesus calls ’em hypocrites. Not just because they’re pretending to do it for God, but really to salve their own consciences, or get public acclaim. It’s because they’ve usually given so little. You realize only one out of five Christians actually help finance their churches. And if they’re so rarely giving to church, they’re definitely not giving elsewhere. 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.