Matthew 6:2-4

HOW NOT TO GIVE

Matt. 6:2-4

So, when you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. This is the truth I tell you–they are paid in full. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms-giving may be in secret, and your Father who sees what happens in secret will give you your reward in full.

To the Jew almsgiving was the most sacred of all religious duties. How sacred it was may be seen from the fact that the Jews used the same word–tsedaqah (HSN6666)–both for righteousness and almsgiving. To give alms and to be righteous were one and the same thing. To give alms was to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even to win atonement and forgiveness for past sins. “It is better to give alms than to lay up gold; almsgiving doth deliver from death, and it purges away all sin” (Tob.12:8).

“Almsgiving to a father shall not be blotted out, And as a substitute for sins it shall stand firmly planted. In the day of affliction it shall be remembered to thy credit. It shall obliterate thine iniquities as the heat, the hoar-frost.” (Ecc.3:14-15).

There was a rabbinic saying: “Greater is he who gives alms than he who offers all sacrifices.” Almsgiving stood first in the catalogue of good works.

It was then natural and inevitable that the man who desired to be good should concentrate on almsgiving. The highest teaching of the Rabbis was exactly the same as the teaching of Jesus. They too forbade ostentatious almsgiving. “He who gives alms in secret,” they said, “is greater than Moses.” The almsgiving which saves from death is that “when the recipient does not know from whom he gets it, and when the giver does not know to whom he gives it.” There was a Rabbi who, when he wished to give alms, dropped money behind him, so that he would not see who picked it up. “It were better” they said, “to give a man nothing, than to give him something, and to put him to shame.” There was one particularly lovely custom connected with the Temple. In the Temple there was a room called The Chamber of the Silent. People who wished to make atonement for some sin placed money there; and poor people from good families who had come down in the world were secretly helped by these contributions.

But as in so many other things practice fell far short of precept. Too often the giver gave in such a way that all men might see the gift, and gave far more to bring glory to himself than to bring help to someone else. During the synagogue services, offerings were taken for the poor, and there were those who took good care that others should see how much they gave. J. J. Wetstein quotes an eastern custom from the ancient days: “In the east water is so scarce that sometimes it had to be bought. When a man wanted to do a good act, and to bring blessing on his family, he went to a water-carrier with a good voice, and instructed him: `Give the thirsty a drink.’ The water-carrier filled his skin and went to the market-place. `O thirsty ones,’ he cried, `come to drink the offering.’ And the giver stood by him and said, `Bless me, who gave you this drink.'” That is precisely the kind of thing that Jesus condemns. He talks about the hypocrites who do things like that. The word hupokrites (GSN5273) is the Greek word for an actor. People like that put on an act of giving which is designed only to glorify themselves.

THE MOTIVES OF GIVING

Matt. 6:2-4 (continued)

Let us now look at some of the motives which lie behind the act of giving.

(i) A man may give from a sense of duty. He may give not because he wishes to give, but because he feels that giving is a duty which he cannot well escape. It may even be that a man can come–perhaps unconsciously–to regard the poor as being in the world to allow him to carry out this duty, and thus to acquire merit in the sight of God.

Catherine Carswell in her autobiography, Lying Awake, tells of her early days in Glasgow: “The poor, one might say, were our pets. Decidedly they were always with us. In our particular ark we were taught to love, honour and entertain the poor.” The key-note, as she looked back upon it, was superiority and condescension. Giving was regarded as a duty, but often with the giving there was a moral lecture which provided a smug pleasure for the man who gave it. In those days Glasgow was a drunken city on a Saturday night. She writes: “Every Sunday afternoon, for some years, my father went a round of the cells of the police station, bailing out the week-end drunks with half-crowns, so that they might not lose their jobs on Monday morning. He asked each one to sign the pledge, and to return his half-crown out of the next week’s wages.” No doubt he was perfectly right, but he gave from a smug eminence of respectability, and included a moral lecture in the giving. He clearly felt himself to be in a quite different moral category from those to whom he gave. It was said of a great, but superior man: “With all his giving he never gives himself” When a man gives, as it were, from a pedestal, when he gives always with a certain calculation, when he gives from a sense of duty, even a sense of Christian duty, he may give generously of things, but the one thing he never gives is himself, and therefore the giving is incomplete.

(ii) A man may give from motives of prestige. He may give to get to himself the glory of giving. The chances are that, if no one is to know about it, or, if there is no publicity attached to it, he would not give at all. Unless he is duly thanked and praised and honoured, he is sadly disgruntled and discontented. He gives, not to the glory of God, but to the glory of himself. He gives, not primarily to help the poor person, but to gratify his own vanity and his own sense of power.

(iii) A man may give simply because he has to. He may give simply because the overflowing love and kindliness in his heart will allow him to do no other. He may give because, try as he may, he cannot rid himself of a sense of responsibility for the man in need.

There was a kind of vast kindliness about Dr. Johnson. There was a poverty-stricken creature called Robert Levett. Levett in his day had been a waiter in Paris and a doctor in the poorer parts of London. He had an appearance and manners, as Johnson said himself, such as to disgust the rich and to terrify the poor. Somehow or other he became a member of Johnson’s household. Boswell was amazed at the whole business, but Goldsmith knew Johnson better. He said of Levett: “He is poor and honest which is recommendation enough for Johnson. He is now become miserable, and that insures the protection of Johnson.” Misfortune was a passport to Johnson’s heart.

Boswell tells this story of Johnson. “Coming home late one night he found a poor woman lying on the street, so much exhausted that she could not walk: he took her upon his back and carried her to his house, where he discovered that she was one of these wretched females, who had fallen into the lowest state of vice, poverty and disease. Instead of harshly upbraiding her, he had her taken care of with all tenderness for a long time, at considerable expense, till she was restored to health, and endeavoured to put her in a virtuous way of living.” All that Johnson got out of that was unworthy suspicions about his own character, but the heart of the man demanded that he should give.

Surely one of the loveliest pictures in literary history is the picture of Johnson, in his own days of poverty, coming home in the small hours of the morning, and, as he walked along the Strand, slipping pennies into the hands of the waifs and strays who were sleeping in the doorways because they had nowhere else to go. Hawkins tells that one asked him how he could bear to have his house filled with “necessitous and undeserving people.” Johnson answered: “If I did not assist them no one else would, and they must not be lost for want.” There you have real giving, the giving which is the upsurge of love in the heart of a man, the giving which is a kind of overflow of the love of God.

We have the pattern of this perfect giving in Jesus Christ himself. Paul wrote to his friends at Corinth: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2Cor.8:9). Our giving must never be the grim and self-righteous outcome of a sense of duty, still less must it be done to enhance our own glory and prestige among men; it must be the instinctive outflow of the loving heart; we must give to others as Jesus Christ gave himself to us.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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