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. 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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
–Matthew 6:1-4; 19-21
One of the positive aspects of this time of prescribed isolation is hearing about the number of caring deeds being done by people. YouTube is a continual source of music, poems, and heartfelt expressions of people passing on hope. And then there are those who are donating millions of dollars in assistance. These are all heartwarming, to say the least. But even more impressive is the fact that there are exponentially more inspiring deeds being done by people who seek no publicity, quiet acts of grace.
Jesus addresses that contrast in today’s scripture. Interestingly enough, it would seem that Jesus’ sermon shifts. It’s almost as if it is another, completely different sermon, and instead of being preached on a mountain, this one is preached in the Temple. Wherever it was preached, Jesus doesn’t alter his tone. He is just as direct about our worship as he has been about our ethics.
Jesus begins this part of the sermon talking about “almsgiving.” It is telling that while “alms” can be translated as money, the word that the Jews used for almsgiving, “tzedakah,” is also the word they used for “righteousness.” Giving alms was so important to their faith that almsgiving and righteousness were considered one and the same thing. In fact, almsgiving was seen by some rabbis, and even quoted in the religious book of Tobit, as a way to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even considered a means of earning atonement and forgiveness for past sins. This could be seen in one of the rooms in the Temple, known as 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. Caring for the needy constituted an important part of Jewish life. But the way a person gives and the spirit in which they give is important.
Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker, gave a most marvelous model for this kind of giving. He lists eight ways in which we give, beginning with the lowest: (1) Giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel disgraced or embarrassed; (2) Giving cheerfully, but giving too little; (3) Giving cheerfully and adequately, but only after being asked; (4) Giving before being asked; (5) Giving when you do not know the individual benefitting, but the recipient knows your identity; (6) Giving when you know the individual benefitting, but the recipient does not know your identity; (7) Giving when neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of the other’s identity; (8) and the highest? Giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant.
I think the point that Jesus is making is that our giving is an important part of our worship, because it is so indicative of how we see the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not so much a matter of the size of the gift, but rather the spirit in which it is given. The spirit is a testimony of what matters most, of what our heart really treasures.
Years ago, The Chaplain magazine told how the noted preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife were called miserly, because they sold all the eggs their chickens laid and would not give any away. Even close relatives were told, “You may have them if you pay for them.” Because they always made a profit on their butter, milk and eggs, rumors circulated that they were greedy. The Spurgeons, however, took the criticism graciously, and only after the death of Mrs. Spurgeon was the truth revealed. The records showed that the entirety of their profits had been used to support two needy, elderly widows whose husbands had spent their lives in serving the Lord. The Spurgeons had refused to defend themselves, because they did not want to call attention to their giving or to the recipients of those gifts. You see, the Spurgeons were living Jesus’ teaching.
The call of Jesus today is to examine what we treasure most. Jesus would point us to the Kingdom. I pray that is where our hearts are pointed, don’t you?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Take some time to consider what matters most for you. What is it that fills your mind, your heart, and/or your effort on an ongoing basis? How does this dedication illustrate your spiritual life?
- Think about some of the ways you give that are not monetary. Thank God for those opportunities and abilities, and seek strength and even more impetus to continue being a blessing.
- Who in your community needs a helping hand today? Will you ask God to help you as you seek to meet that need?
- When you make your customary gift to the church, think about all the ways this money is used. Someone once said that “a church budget should be a mission statement.” Reflect on all the good/grace enabled by your giving.
A Guide for Prayer: Kahlil Gibran on Giving
You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?
And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?
And what is fear of need but need itself?
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?
There are those who give little of the much which they have–and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.
And is there aught you would withhold?
All you have shall some day be given;
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.
You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.
And you receivers—and you are all receivers—assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.