A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:2-4 A Christian’s religion: Christian giving (continued).
Having forbidden his followers to give to the needy in the ostentatious manner of the Pharisees, Jesus now tells us the Christian way, which is the way of secrecy. He expresses it by another negative: *But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret*. The right hand is normally the active hand. So Jesus assumes we shall use it when handing over our gift. Then he adds that our left hand must not be watching. There is no difficulty is grasping his meaning. Not only are we not to tell other people about our Christian giving; there is a sense in which we are not even to tell ourselves. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness. So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation.
It would be hard to exaggerate the perversity of this. For giving is a real activity involving real people in real need. Its purpose is to alleviate the distress of the needy. The Greek word for almsgiving, as we have seen, indicates that it is a work of mercy. Yet it is possible to turn an act of mercy into an act of vanity, so that our principle motive in giving is not the benefit of the person receiving the gift but our own benefit who gave it. Altruism has been replaced by a distorted egotism.
So then, in order to ‘mortify’ or put to death our sinful vanity, Jesus urges us to keep our giving secret from ourselves as well as from others. By his words ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,’ writes Bonhoeffer, Jesus ‘was sounding the death-knell of the old man,’ for self- centredness belongs to the old life; the new life in Christ is one of uncalculating generosity. Of course it is not possible to obey this command of Jesus in precise literalness. If we keep accounts and plan our giving, as conscientious Christians should, we are bound to know how much we give away. We cannot very well close our eyes while writing out our cheques! Nevertheless, as soon as the giving of a gift is decided and done, it will be in keeping with this teaching of Jesus that we forget it. We are not to keep recalling it in order to gloat over it, or to preen ourselves on how generous, disciplined or conscientious our giving may have been. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self- congratulation.
What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God. This is implied in our Lord’s reference to our right and left hands. ‘By this expression’, Calvin writes, ‘he means that we ought to be satisfied with having God for our only witness.’. Although we keep our giving secret from others, and to some extent secret even from ourselves, we cannot keep it secret from God. No secrets are hidden from him. So *your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
Some people rebel against the teaching of Jesus. They neither want nor expect a reward of any kind from anybody, they say. More than that, they find in our Lord’s promise of a reward an inherent inconsistency. How can he forbid the desire for praise from others or from ourselves and then command us to seek it from God? Surely, they say, this merely exchanges one form of vanity for another? Should we not rather give purely for the sake of giving? To seek praise from any quarter – from man, self or God – seems to them to vitiate the act of giving.
The first reason why such arguments are mistaken has to do with the nature of the rewards. When people say that the idea of rewards is distasteful to them, I always suspect that the picture in their mind is prize-giving at school, with silver trophies gleaming on the platform table and everybody clapping! The conjuring up of this kind of scene may be due to the AV words ‘shall reward thee *openly*’. This adverb should be omitted, however. The contrast is not between a secret gift and a public reward, but between the men who neither see nor reward the gift and the God who does both.
C.S.Lewis wisely wrote in an assay entitled ‘The weight of glory’: ‘We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it.’ Similarly we might say that a silver cup is not a very suitable reward for a schoolboy who works hard, whereas a scholarship at a university would be. C.S.Lewis concludes his argument: ‘The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to any activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.’.
What then is the ‘reward’ which the heavenly Father gives the secret giver? It is neither public nor necessarily future. It is probably the only reward that genuine love wants when making a gift to the needy, namely to see the need relieved. When through his gifts the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, the oppressed freed and the lost saved, the love which prompted the gift is satisfied. Such love (which is God’s own love expressed through man) brings with it its own secret joys, and desires no other reward.
To sum up, our Christian giving is to be neither before men (waiting for the clapping to begin), nor even before ourselves (our left hand applauding our right hand’s generosity) but ‘before God’, who sees our secret heart and rewards us with the discovery that, as Jesus said ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’ (Acts. 20:35).
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:5-6. A Christian’s religion: Christian praying.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.