Giving to the Needy
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
I heard a story about a man that went to a concert in a fancy concert hall, filled with rich, powerful, and upper class people. At the end of the concert, this person noticed two ushers standing near his seat who were applauding harder than anybody else in the whole place. The man said that he was thrilled with this particular concert because of the talent of the musicians. It thrilled him even more to see these two ushers standing there applauding more vigorously than all of the concert goers. These two men truly appreciated good music! His experience was somewhat diminished when he heard one usher say to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”
The ushers’ motivation for clapping seemed to have more to do with their own paycheck than an appreciation for fine music. Which makes me wonder if there are ever times in my life when I do things for the wrong reasons? For instance, I try every week to preach a good sermon. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to preach a good sermon, if it is done for the glory of God. But I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I think I do it for the wrong reasons. I want to be known as a good preacher and teacher. I want people to say to each other, “That Kevin sure did bring some helpful insight to the scripture for this morning.” There is nothing wrong with preaching a good message, but there is something wrong with doing it to receive praise.
We return to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount today and this means that we are going to return to discussing ethics, how we should live as followers of Jesus. But the thing that I want to remind you of this morning is that we practice ethics on this side of the resurrection, not because of what we can do for God, but because of what God has already done for us. We are not trying to earn God’s love; we are not trying to appease an angry God. We have been invited to follow Jesus and live life to the fullest. Ethics teaches us how to live life to the fullest while working with God for the reconciliation of all things. This is why I love ethics, we get to work side by side with other followers of Jesus to make this world more like God intended for it to be. Ethics teaches us how to partner with God to make his kingdom come, his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. So if you hear me talk about ethics and all you hear is “rules, rules, rules; laws, laws, laws” then you are missing the point. Rather than rules and laws, ethics is about life as God intended it to be.
To understand today’s passage we need to back up to where we left off about seven weeks ago. In chapter 5 Jesus has just finished telling his listeners that they should love their enemies. He says that it is easy to love those that love you, but we are called to love everyone, even our enemies Virginia Tech fans. Jesus is calling his listeners to love the un-loveable; to love them like God loves them. And Jesus compares God’s love to the rain, falling on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When I first read through this text earlier this week, I assumed that the word that Jesus used here that we translate as “love” was going to be the Greek word “phileo,” which we often think of as brotherly love. But it isn’t phileo. It is the big one…agape. Agape love is the kind of love that God displays in sending his only begotten son into the world in John 3:16. Agape love is the kind of love that Jesus showed in offering himself up on the cross. Agape love is self-sacrificing, outpouring love. And in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says that we are called to offer this self-sacrificing, outpouring love to everyone, even if we don’t like them. Then he ends the chapter with a real challenge. We are to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Now we need to remember that the chapter and verse numbers in our Bibles came along some time after the Bible was written. I am thankful for these breaks so we can more-easily reference certain passages. But Jesus didn’t speak this line about loving everyone with this self-sacrificing, outpouring love like God has and then sit down and wait seven weeks before he started with Matthew chapter six like I have. No, this is seamless. He instructs his listeners to offer self-sacrificing, outpouring love like God does to everyone, then he tells them to be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect, and then goes right to our passage for today about practicing piety. Stay with me, this might get a little confusing.
Verse one from our text says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Other versions say not to “practice your piety before others,” or to “do your charitable deeds before” others in order to be seen by them. No definition or example of righteous acts, piety, or charitable deeds is given yet. The Greek word used here is δικαιοσύνη which means “state of him who is as he ought to be.” And who is as a person ought to be? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is Who is perfect? God is perfect.
So in one verse Jesus tells us to be perfect just as our heavenly father is perfect, but then in the very next verse he says not to be like our heavenly father in front of others. So how do we reconcile this with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:14-16, where he says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”? Which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to do our good works before others so that God might be glorified through them or must we not do them before others because if we do, we won’t have a reward from God?
Jesus never says not to be pious, righteous, or God-like in front of others. He says, Don’t do it in order to be seen by others. There is a big difference. And the difference is your motivation.
So let’s tie this all together now. Jesus invites us to love everyone, even our enemies, with a self-sacrificial, outpouring love. We are to love perfectly, as our heavenly Father loves perfectly, indiscriminately. Just as God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous, so too are we to love everyone equally. But, we are not to do so in order that other people will see us loving people like God loves people so that they will think more highly of us. If you love people just so that others will know that you are a loving person, then you have missed the point. You don’t love others so that others will see what you are doing and give you praise. You do it because we are following Jesus, seeking to live life to the fullest, seeking to glorify God.
To summarize, I believe that verse one of chapter six is teaching us that while we are called to be like God in that we love everyone with this self-sacrificing, outpouring love, we are not to do it in order to be seen by others. Regardless of whether we do it in front of others or in private, we must always do it to glorify the Lord, not ourselves.
Jesus goes on in chapter six to give three different examples of how he has seen people performing their acts of righteousness and piety before others for the wrong reason. In verses 2-4 he talks about how people give money to those in need while others are watching so that they will receive praise. In verses 5-7 he speaks about how he has witnessed people who pray long, eloquent prayers in public just to be seen and appreciated by those who are looking on. Then in verse 16 Jesus comments on the people who fast and make their faces all somber and disfigured so that other people will know that they are fasting. These are three examples that Jesus uses to describe the wrong motivation for practicing piety or righteousness. If you are doing these things just to be seen by others, you are missing the point. And in verse 19 he refers to the reward that these people will receive as treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy. Instead, we are to store up treasures in heaven.
So I have this picture in my head of a young man and woman out on their first date. He really likes her, but he doesn’t know how she feels about him. They go out to a movie, and the young man pays for the tickets and he gets his tickets and his change from the teller out along the street. But when the teller gives him his change, which is a couple dollars, he accidentally drops the money into the hat of a beggar that is sitting right there along the street.
The young woman was only half paying attention, but when she sees the money go into the man’s hat, she is deeply moved by the generosity of her date. So now, every homeless person that they come to that evening, the young man is putting money into the hands, paper cups, or hats of the people in need.
Is giving to people in need a good thing? Absolutely, the Bible tells us time and time again that we are to care for those that can’t care for themselves. But if the young man is giving money to the homeless people that he comes in contact with just because he thinks that it is going to get him a second date, then that will be his only reward. Again, it doesn’t mean that it is a bad thing to give the money. The young man might get that second date. But don’t for a minute think that you are doing this out of an agape-type of love for everyone. You aren’t doing this out of Christ-like love. You are doing it out of teenage-like, hormonal-driven instinct.
The point that Jesus is making is that our motivation for doing something matters. You can do something that is good for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, but it isn’t following Christ. What is making you do what you are doing? Are you doing it because you want to be noticed or remembered for being a good person? Well, at least you are doing good things. But if you want to be like Jesus, you do these good works because that is what Jesus did; that is who Jesus is.
I have never been much of an actor. I don’t even have a good poker face. If I am playing cards with you, you will know if I am holding a good hand. So while I have never been much of an actor myself, I have seen people play actors on television. before. And I assume that they know what they are doing when they play actors on tv because, well, they are actors in real life. I picture a struggling actor looking through the help wanted section in the classified ads and coming across an ad that says, “Male wanted to play the part of actor on sitcom.” The actor would think to himself, “This is perfect. I can play an actor.” Of course you can play an actor; you are an actor!
Anyway, on occasion when I have seen an actor playing an actor on television preparing for filming or the stage, they have asked the director, “What is my motivation?” Again, I don’t know if this happens in real life, but I see it on television, so it has to be true. The script in front of them is just words that form lines and paragraphs filling up pages of paper. And the actors playing actors on television know that if they want to really make the part come to life, they need to know not only the words to say and the motions to go through. To make the character truly come to life they need to know why the character is there, what has been going on in the life of the character, and what the character is trying to accomplish. When these actors playing actors on television ask, “What’s my motivation?” they are trying to figure out as much as they can about what has brought their character into the situation that they are being asked to act out.
We have probably all seen actors that don’t get this. Regardless of whether they are supposed to be elated or morose, excited or depressed, they just recite the lines in the same way. You hear them speak in a monotone voice. The cadence is a little choppy. The character never really comes to life.
I would say that the best actors are the ones that can make you forget that they are acting at all. The best actors just seem to you like they are living the part. And perhaps they are so good at acting out a particular part because they too have been in a certain situation.
I remember some soap opera actress being interviewed once because of her ability to cry so convincingly on camera. I don’t remember who she was or what soap opera she acted on, but I remember seeing the footage of her crying, the tears just pouring out of her eyes. She had won multiple awards for her acting on this soap opera. So when the interviewer asked her how she was able to cry so convincingly, so full of emotion, she said, “It’s easy. All I do is think of all of the things that my character has been through, and I can’t help but cry.” I would say that the reason she is such a good actress is that in those situations, she isn’t acting at all. She is being authentic. She is being loving.
When Jesus tells his hearers to not do their righteous or pious acts before others to be seen, he realizes that if they are doing it only to be seen, then they have the wrong motivation. They are like actors reading the script, reading the right text, doing the right thing, but they aren’t really making their character come alive. You can go through the right motions and say the right words, but if you don’t have the right motivation, then nobody is going to be receiving the full benefit of your actions.
It is the people that are doing righteous acts out of a sincere desire to follow Jesus that are the most authentic. When you serve others out of Christ-like, agape love, and you are doing so out of your own experiences then you are like that soap opera actress that could cry so well because she genuinely felt for her character, even if the character wasn’t real.
Helping those who can’t help themselves is always a good thing. Whether you are doing it because you feel guilty, or maybe because you enjoy that high that you get by working in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, it is still a good thing. But if your motivation for helping those in need is just to receive the praises of others or a good feeling about yourself, then you have received your reward in full. It is when we serve others out of love and a desire to glorify God that we will truly be rewarded; rewarded with the fullness of life that God intended for us to have.