Summary: In the eyes of the Master our motive for practising benevolence is extremely important.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Canada is one of a handful of nations that encourage charitable giving. The government does this through providing tax incentives. Few nations beyond the English-speaking world encourage such benevolence through considerations under the tax code. Consequently, the nations most noted for encouraging charitable contributions share in common a heritage of a Christian foundation.
Living in a nation that encourages generosity should result in marked benevolence among those living under such rules. However, much of the generosity that has marked individual Canadians in years past has been stifled by the fact that governments tend to be “charitable” with moneys taken from taxpayers. Fewer Canadians are eager to give generously when they believe they have already given generously through the decisions of politicians at various levels.
The giving that is done by Canadians is increasingly done on an emotional basis, rather than as planned giving. Charities long ago discovered that photos of impoverished children and videos portraying heart-breaking destitution and scenes of major disasters motivate people to give. However, such giving is sporadic and spasmodic. However, the giving that is promoted in the Word of God is systematic and studied—it is purposeful and planned. Undoubtedly, we will benefit from a reminder from the Master concerning benevolence.
The Overarching Principle — “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Let me read that opening statement from a freer translation. “See to it that your effort to do right is not based on a desire to be popular.” Or, consider yet another translation that seeks to capture the thrust of Jesus’ warning delivered to His disciples. “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it.” Taken at face value, Jesus’ words indicate that there is pronounced danger in performing religious duties, perhaps even in seeking God’s glory.
The danger is related less to what is done than it is to the motive for a particular act. This should not be a surprise to anyone who is even moderately conversant with the Word of God, as God is always more concerned with motives than with actions. It is an axiom of that Faith that we can do the right thing while holding the wrong motive, and dishonour God. It is not that actions are unimportant, but that doing the right thing for the wrong reason cannot honour the Master. God examines the heart, testing the motive for our service.
The passage enunciates a principle that is unpacked in this portion of the Sermon Jesus preached—righteous acts are to be done quietly. Whether fasting [Matthew 6:16-18], praying [Matthew 6:5-15] or giving gifts [Matthew 6:1-4], the child of God must check his or her motive. There is within the human heart a perverse tendency toward seeking approval or admiration from others when we act. However, God calls His followers to act quietly, not ostentatiously. The text presents, if you will, a flip side to Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Underscore the frequently neglected principle in your mind—There must be balance in the believer’s actions. We must seek God’s glory in all things, constantly assessing our actions in light of our motives.
Earlier, in Matthew 5:16, Jesus says that the entire life-style and character of the disciple must reflect the character of the Father. The subject in our text is specifically religious actions. The difference in the two passages is the difference between holiness and presumptive piety. People should recognise that we are godly by our general demeanour and the character of our lives—we are honest in our dealings, we are sincere and fair in our treatment of others, we are conscious of the presence of the Lord. However, through mere external acts, we can gain a false reputation for goodness. It is easier to be a religious hypocrite than to gain an honest reputation for being a righteous individual.
Three of the greatest acts of piety in the Jewish Faith were fasting, praying and giving. The Master uses these acts to teach a vital truth. He assumes that they will be done, and therefore He builds on what would have been somewhat common actions for those among whom He lived and ministered at that time. Things are not very different today. We hold in high esteem—and rightly so—people who are willing to fast, dedicated to prayer and quick to be charitable toward those in need. However, you and I know that a person can deny themselves every sort of comfort, recite multiple prayers or construct the most moving petitions, or give generously in addressing various needs and yet fail to honour God.