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Do Not Show Off
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6 and follow along as I read verses 1-4. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell 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 done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Amen. The word of God, thanks be to God.
As most of you know, my wife Beth is a third grade teacher. She often receives little gifts from her students. She laughs about some of them. For example, there was the child that came to her with some candy, and said, “I do not like this kind of candy, you can have it.” Another child said to her with perfect innocence, "Someone gave this to my mommy and she didn’t want it, so you can have it." Those are “throwaway gifts.” That is to say, the person who gave it was probably going to throw it away, so they gave it to the teacher instead. So, what they have is the appearance of giving, but they are really not giving. On the hand, sometimes a child can gikve you a gift that will touch your heart. One of Beth’s third graders was a girl who mother ran off and left her with her father. Then her father died. The girl was living in poverty. She had nothing. She gave Beth a framed picture of herself (the girl) with her father. An adult might say that was a strange gift. What would Beth want with a picture of one of her students and her father? But you have to realize that was all t he girl had to give. That was a gift of love. She gave all she had.
Our verses today are about giving. V1 says “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” The Greek word translated as “piety” is “dikaiosunhn,” which can also mean “what God requires” or “what is right.” Sometimes it means “acts of love.” So what Jesus says is do not do your “dikaiosunhn,” your acts of love, to be seen by others. Notice that the assumption is that we will do acts of love. There is no question of that, but do not do what God requires of us to show off.
Jesus requires that we think about our actions. Jesus is never content with just external action. He is more concerned with our motives. Action without righteous motive is never righteous. So Jesus requires that we examine ourselves and ask why we are doing this. This applies to all the religious things that we do. We come to church. Why? We pray. Why? What is our motive? Now I realize that most people do not ever get to this level in their religious life. Most think that if we can just do something that looks religious, that is enough. Jesus demands that we look at ourselves and understand why we act as we do.
But you might say, have we not caught Jesus in a contradiction here. Back in Matthew 5:16, Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven,” and now He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” Is not that a big contradiction? Not if we understand Jesus’ intention. The two statements make the same point. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says when people see our good deeds they are to praise God, not us, and in Matthew 6:1, he says do not do your acts of righteousness so others will praise you. Both of these verses show us the purpose of good deeds. The purpose is not to make us visible; the purpose is to make God visible.
Give, Give, Give
In verses 2-4, Jesus gives us a specific example of how this is supposed to work. I said earlier that these verses are about giving, but that is not exactly correct. The real issue in these verses is not giving. Jesus assumes that the people of God are a generous people who give of their time and talent and money to support the cause of God.
I once heard the story of a Baptist preacher who wrote a Texas oil millionaire and asked for a contribution to help build his church building. The millionaire wrote back and declined, adding: “As for this Christianity thing, it seems to me that it is nothing but give, give, give.” The preacher wrote the millionaire again to thank him for the best definition of the Christianity he had ever heard. Yes, Christians are people who give, give of time, give of money, give of themselves.
The famous psychiatrist, Karl Menninger stated that one sign of mental health is the ability to release money, to give it away. In contrast, stingy people are often mentally unbalanced. It is often the stingy, controlling person who is neurotic. God created us to be healthy. One way to contribute to our mental health is to practice generosity. Jesus did, and we are supposed to be growing into his likeness.
True giving is a response of love; a response to the God of love. Our triune God is our example in giving. Before we give anything at all to Christ in any offering plate, Christ gave his all for us on the cross. And God the Father gave us the Holy Spirit that we might be assured that through Christ, we are indeed the people of God.
Thus, we are inspired to give, but part of our giving is our motive, and for the giving to be right, the motive must be right. Thus, God’s people should not be manipulated into giving. Some folks give out of fear. The preacher uses the "God’s Gonna Get You" approach. He says that if you do not give you will suffer financial losses. The engine in your car will blow up, your kid will need braces, or your dog will die, and you will probably go to hell. Other people give out of guilt. The preacher says, "This church is being supported by a few faithful brothers and sisters, and if you are not giving you are using somebody else’s money.” Some churches make giving a competition. They distribute buttons that say "I Did It!" and if people give over a hundred dollars a week they call them “Patrons,” and if they give fifty dollars a week, they call them “Sponsors,” and if they give thirty dollars a week, they call them “Backers.”
God’s people do not have to be manipulated with such worldly techniques because we have a better motive for giving. The motive is found in II Corinthians 9:7, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Give to the Needy
Now we give to the church, we also give to the needy. In a way the church does some of that, that is to say that some of the money you give to the church goes to people in need. We have a deacon’s fund. We do help people who are down on their luck, and the WOC also helps those in need particularly at Christmas time. But in addition to that you, as an individual, are called to help where you can, but Jesus requires you to examine your motives for helping others.
Let me give you an example. I have mostly stopped responding to pleas for help by people who show up at church on Sunday morning. Sometimes they show up between Sunday School and Morning Worship, sometimes even before Sunday School. And I do not have time to think about their plea, and I have sometimes just given them $5 to get rid of them—which is a poor motive for giving. What I tell them now is you must come back during the week when I have time to talk with you. Generally, they do not come back. However that may be, what Jesus says to me is just because you are busy and want to get rid of them is not the right motive for helping them.
The Trumpet Call
In verse 2, Jesus talks about wrong motives, saying, “Do not sound a trumpet before you.” As distasteful as it may seem to us, the Pharisees used a trumpet blast as a signal that it was time to give to the poor, and they quickly drew a crowd as they ostentatiously made their way through the streets to the synagogue to make their showy gifts. What a disgusting sight that must have been.
Now we may not employ a troop of trumpeters, but we sometimes still like to toot our own horns. It boosts our ego to see our name listed as a supporter of good causes. Thus, we face the same temptation – drawing attention to our giving in order to be praised by people.
In Acts chapter 5, when others were giving generously to the church, a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and brought the money to the church, but they brought only part of the proceeds and pretended it was the full amount they had received from the sale. Why did they do this? Because Ananias and Sapphira wanted to appear to be godly, generous folks. They wanted their names to be announced. They wanted someone to say, “Lets put your hands together for Ananias and Sapphira.” But their pious pretence was obvious to God, and they were judged for their hypocrisy.
Once when a church was taking up an offering, a man said to the usher, “Do you have change for a hundred dollar bill?” And he held up the bill. The astonished usher, looked down at his plate that had maybe $20 in it and replied, “No, I don’t.” The man then said, “That is all right. I will just give it all to the Lord,” and he put the bill in the plate. Thus, he managed to tell everyone around him that he was giving to the Lord. Jesus would tell him that he has his reward in the admiration he received from those around him; hence, he should expect nothing from God.
In September of 1997 Ted Turner announced he was giving a billion dollars to the United Nations. He said he was giving away one third of his wealth—which is remarkable—and he gave the money not to the Turner museum; not to endow a Turner chair at a university; rather, Turner directed his dollars to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the poorest of the poor. Now I give Ted Turner full credit for what he did, but I have to notice that while he was being very generous, he made sure everyone knew about it. Before making the gift, he called up Larry King so he could start circulating the news. Turner made his announcement in a New York ballroom filled with tuxedos, evening gowns, reporters, and cameras. Jesus says there is a better way to go about giving. Do not show off. Just do it.
Further, Jesus says, in v2, do not be a hypocrite. Our English word “hypocrite” comes directly from the Greek. In classical Greek, the word was associated with actors who wore masks to play a role. When they switched roles, they switched masks. So, it is no surprise that the word soon came to denote pretense or deception. A religious hypocrite makes a great display of religion. He is wearing a mask that says, “Look how godly I am.” Jesus says, God is not impressed with masks.
The story is told of an eastern holy man who covered himself with ashes and regularly sat on a prominent street corner in a city. When tourists asked permission to take his picture, the so-called mystic rearranged his ashes to give the best image of destitution and humility. Much religion amounts to nothing more than the hypocrisy of rearranging religious “ashes” to impress the world.
But hypocrites have one amazing ability: They are able to keep people from attending church. Plenty of people may go to a Carolina Panthers football game and have no interest in what is happening on the field; they are only there to drink and socialize, but these “football hypocrites” do not keep us from going to the game. Plenty of people go to a symphony or a theater, just to be seen by other people. They do not care about the music or the play, yet that does not deter us from going if we do care. Yet people say, I do not go to church because there are hypocrites there. Of course, there are hypocrites in church, but that does not mean that we should not be in the church.
At the 1993 annual meeting of the American Heart Association, 300,000 doctors, nurses, and researchers met in Atlanta to discuss, among other things, the importance a low-fat diet plays in keeping our hearts healthy. Yet during mealtimes, they consumed fat-filled fast food—such as bacon Cheeseburgers and fries—at about the same rate as people from other conventions. When one cardiologist was asked whether his high-fat meals set a bad example, he replied, “Not me, because I took my name tag off.”
What Jesus says to us is you cannot take your name tag off. Jesus says, You are my people, so you have to set an example, and that outward example must reflect inner truth.
So Jesus says we should not we hypocrites, we should not toot our own horn, we should not be manipulated into giving. Those are wrong motives. In verse 3, Jesus reveals the right motive saying: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” This was a proverbial expression that simply referred to doing something spontaneously, with no special effort or show. For most people, the right hand is the primary hand of action, and in a normal day’s work the right hand does many things as a matter of course that do not involve the left hand. Helping those in need is a normal activity of Christians, and we do it as simply, directly, and discreetly as possible.
We must understand that giving is a real activity involving real people in real need, yet it is possible to turn an act of mercy into an act of vanity, and that is what happens when our principal motive in giving is not the benefit of the person receiving the gift, but our own benefit. This is a terrible way to think and act. Giving is about love, but when the gift is given so that we can be praised, the only love we show is love for ourselves.
So in a sense, we are better off if our giving is a secret even from ourselves. Do not let your left hand know what the right is doing, or your left hand may want to pat your right hand in praise, which looks and sounds something like this: CLAP, CLAP, CLAP. “Right hand, look what you gave! None of your friends are giving that generously. You know, God’s pretty lucky to have someone like you.”
Wrong again. Jesus tells us that the most satisfying giving, and the giving that God blesses, is that which is done and forgotten. It is done in love out of response to a need, and when the need is met, the givers go on about their business, not waiting for or wanting recognition. Whether other people know about it does not matter. Whether the person we help is grateful does not matter.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Commander Joe Rochefort broke Japanese naval codes. Stationed at an intelligence base in Oahu, he predicted the Japanese would attack Midway on June 3, 1942, which they did. Because of Rochefort’s expertise, the United States ambushed the Japanese Navy, and dealt them the worst naval defeat in their history. Japan lost four carriers, one cruiser, 2500 men, 322 aircraft, and their best pilots. Today, most historians say that it was in large part due to this crippling defeat that Japan eventually lost the war.
But, Rochefort never received recognition for his efforts. Instead, some intelligence men in Washington, D.C., falsified reports and claimed credit, even though they predicted a June 10 date of attack. Washington sealed the records for 40 years, and Rochefort was never properly rewarded. In fact, he was actually removed from intelligence and assigned to a floating dry dock in San Francisco.
In their book, Deceit at Pearl Harbor, Lt. Cmdr. Ken Landis (ret.), Staff Sgt. Rex Gunn, (ret.), and Msgt. Robert Andrade (ret.) tell about a note Rochefort kept on his desk: "WE CAN ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING PROVIDING NO ONE CARES WHO GETS THE CREDIT." The authors write, "That was the attitude that won the battle of Midway." That is also a great attitude for a child of God. “WE CAN ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING PROVIDING NO ONE CARES WHO GETS THE CREDIT.” Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04