The Sermon On The Mount
The Giving of Alms
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms. let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly."
We now enter upon the fourth division of our Lord's Sermon, a section which includes the first eighteen verses of Matthew vi, the general subject of which is the performing of good works so as to secure the approbation of God. As we shall see, Christ here takes up quite a different aspect of Truth, yet is it one which is closely related to what had formerly occupied His attention. There He had made it very evident that He required more from His followers than the religion of the scribes and Pharisees produced (vv. 20, 47). Here He insists that a far higher quality is also absolutely necessary. There He had warned His hearers against the erroneous doctrines of the Jewish teachers, here He cautions them against their evil practices, particularly the sins of hypocrisy and worldly-mindedness.
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1). There is no doubt whatever in our mind that in this instance the rendering of the Revised Version is to be preferred: "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men to be seen of them," though the Revised Version rightly uses "alms" in verse 2. This first verse enunciates a general principle in reference to moral and spiritual duties, which in the succeeding verses is illustrated, amplified, and enforced in the three particular duties of alms, prayer and fasting-it is acts of righteousness which are in view. Thus it is a case where an abstract noun is given a concrete sense: it is similarly used in Matthew 3:15, and 5:20; in all three passages it has the force of "righteousnesses" or "good works."
In verses 2-4 the general principle laid down in the opening sentence is applied manward, Godward, and self-ward, and the three duties specified have to do with our estates, our souls, and our bodies. Those three good works of alms, prayer and fasting have occupied a conspicuous place in all the leading religious systems, and have been almost universally regarded as the chief means of obtaining salvation and the clearest proofs of righteousness and sanctity. In their most serious moments, all, except the most abandoned, have been willing to practice some form and degree of self-denial, or perform acts of devotion, in the hope that they might thereby appease the great God whose wrath they feared.
In the teachings of the Koran, prayer, fasting and alms are the chief duties required from the Mohammedan. Prayer, it is said, will carry a man halfway to Paradise. fasting will bring him to the gates, and alms will give him entrance. The great prominence which Romanism assigns to almsgiving-especially when the alms are bestowed upon herself-to the senseless repetition of prayers, and to bodily mortifications, is too well known to need any enlarging upon. Similar ideas obtain among other religions, especially in Buddhism-lamaism with its prayer-wheels being a case in point. But in our present passage Christ shows us that, as mere formal works, these religious acts are worthless in the sight of God.
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven" (v. 1). It ought to be apparent that our Lord is not here reprehending the giving of alms as such, but rather that He is condemning that ostentatious bestowment of charity which is done for the purpose of self-advertisement. As a matter of fact this particular admonition of the Saviour's takes it for granted that His disciples were in the habit of relieving the indigent, and this notwithstanding that most of them had to labour for their own daily bread. That against which Christ warned was the giving of unnecessary publicity in the discharge of this duty, and the making the praise of men our ultimate object therein. Most flagrantly did the Pharisees err at this very point. Edersheim gives the following quotation as a specimen, "He that says, I give this 'sela' that my sons may live, and that I may merit the world to come, behold, this is the perfect righteousness."
To show pity unto the afflicted is but common humanity. It is a great mistake to suppose that the exercise of beneficence is something peculiar to this Christian era. Under the legal economy God commanded His people, "If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother; But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth" (Deut. 15:7, 8). "And if thy brother be waxen poor and fallen in decay with thee, then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner, that he may live with thee" (Lev. 25:35). Job declared, "I was a father to the poor" (29;16). Said the Psalmist, "Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble" (41:1).
"He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he" (Prov. 14:21)-there was the fullest room for the exercise of mercy under the Mosaic dispensation. "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will He pay him again" (Prov. 19:17): yes, for the poor, equally with the rich, are His creatures, and the Lord will be no man's debtor. "Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard" (Prov. 21:13); we need hardly say that the principle of this verse is still in operation. "He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack, but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse" (Prov. 28:27). At a time of great spiritual declension in Israel, Jehovah brought against them the following charges, "They sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes. . . . For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right" (Amos 2:6; 5:12).
It is therefore a most un-Christian attitude to argue, We have enough to do to provide for our families: it is for the rich and not for the laboring people to give alms. If the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts we shall feel for the afflicted, and according to our ability shall be ready to relieve the needy, especially such as belong to the Household of Faith; yea, if a situation requires it, shall gladly deny ourselves comforts so as to do more for those in want. And let us not overlook the fact that Christ here designates almsgiving as "righteousness." The apostle struck the same note when he pressed Psalm 112:9, on his hearers: "As it is written, He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor: his righteousness remaineth for ever" (2 Cor. 9:9). Those who refuse to give unto the poor are guilty of a gross injustice, for inasmuch as they are but stewards over what they possess they rob the needy of their due.
Thus, by making alms an essential branch of practical righteousness, our Lord teaches us that the succouring of the poor is not a work of freedom, left to our own choice, but something which is enjoined upon us by Divine commandment. So far from the matter of providing for the needy being left to our own option, it is one of bare justice, and failure therein is a grievous breach both of the Law of God and of nature. But the giving of alms to the poor is not only an act of righteousness, it is also the exercise of kindness. The Greek word, which is here rendered, "alms" is derived from a root which signifies to have compassion or to be merciful. This takes us behind the act itself to the spirit which prompts it: it is not the mere bestowment of goods or money which constitutes "alms," but the merciful and pitiful heart of the giver.
From what has just been pointed out we may also discover who are the ones entitled to be relieved, the kind of persons whom we may rightfully bestow alms upon, for we are not to act blindly in this matter. It is those who are in such a condition as really to draw out our pity: such as orphans and elderly widows, the maimed, the sick, and the blind. If this principle be duly heeded, we shall be guarded against indiscriminate giving, which often does a great deal more harm than good-encouraging idleness and intemperance. Obviously, healthy and robust beggars who would trade upon the generosity of others are not entitled to receive alms: "This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). Thus, in abetting the indolent we are partners with those who defy Divine authority.
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them." This admonition is for the avoidance of an unlawful manner of giving alms, for even a good deed may be done in an ill way. Alas, so very deceitful and desperately wicked are our hearts that our most beneficent actions may proceed from corrupt desires and thereby be rendered not only void, but evil in the sight of Him with whom we have to do. Christ's "take heed" intimates that we are in great danger of erring at this very point. Acts of charity are specially offensive in the sight of our gracious God when they are performed from a desire to procure for ourselves a reputation of sanctity or generosity among our fellows. Alas, how much of this obnoxious pride, this vaunting of charity, is there today both in the religious world and the secular.
That against which Christ here warns His disciples is the secret pride of their hearts. This pride is twofold: of the mind and will, and of the affections. Pride of mind is a corrupt disposition whereby a man thinks more highly of himself than he ought to do: this was the sin of the Pharisees (Luke 18:12) and of the Laodiceans (Rev. 3:16). This conceit is most dangerous, especially in the matter of saving grace, for it has caused multitudes to deceive themselves by imagining they had been born again when in fact they were dead in trespasses and sins, and moving real Christians to imagine they possess more grace than they actually do. Pride of will is an inward affection which makes a man discontented with the estate in which God has p laced him, leading him to hanker after a better: this was the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:5, 6).
Now from these corrupt principles of pride of mind and pride of will issues that exercise or practice of pride in a man's life whereby he is determined to do whatever he can which will promote his own praise and glory. Such pride is not something which is peculiar to a few people only, but is found in every man by nature-the Lord Jesus alone excepted. And where this pride is not mortified and held in leash by God, it is so strong that it will not be crossed at any price, for rather than have his proud will thwarted a person will commit any sin: as Pharaoh when he asked, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?" (Ex. 5:2); as Absalom, who was responsible for the banishing of his father from his own kingdom; and as Ahithophel, who went and hanged himself when his counsel was rejected. It was just such pride as this which occasioned the fall of Satan himself (Isa. 14; 1 Tim. 3:6).
Therefore, "take heed," says Christ: take every possible precaution to guard against this sin. How? First, by unsparing self-examination. The more careful we are to know the pride of our hearts, the less likely are we to be deceived by it. Second, by sincere self-condemnation: "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged" (1 Cor, 11:31). If we would humble ourselves before God, we must hate ourselves for our wicked pride and penitently confess it to Him. Third, by reminding ourselves of the judgments of God upon this sin. Herod was eaten up of worms because he took unto himself the glory due unto God (Acts 12:23). "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble" (1 Pet. 5:5). Fourth, by meditating upon the fearful sufferings of Christ in Gethsemane and on Golgotha: nothing will more effectually humble my proud heart than the realization that it was my very sins which occasioned the death of God's Lamb.
"Otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven" (v. 1). The value of an action is determined by the principle from which it proceeds. To give to the poor simply because it is customary is merely the limitation of others. To minister unto the needy in order to increase our own influence and power is a display of carnal ambition. To give so as to advance worldly interests is a manifestation of covetousness; if to seek applause, it is to gratify pride; if to alleviate the sufferings of my fellows, it is only the exercise of common humanity. But if I minister unto the needy out of a respect to the Divine authority and with the desire of pleasing God, acting from regard for His will, to which I long to be conformed in all things, then it is a spiritual act and acceptable unto the Lord. (Condensed from John Brown.)
"Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward" (v. 2). "Sound not a trumpet" is a figurative way of saying, Seek not to attract the attention of other people unto thyself. The word "hypocrite" is a significant one, for it properly denotes an actor who wears a mask, playing his part behind it. The Pharisees posed as being most devout worshippers of Cod and lovers of their fellow men, when in reality they were self-righteous and sought only the applause of men: behind the outward appearance of piety and generosity they were the slaves of worldly and selfish passions. They performed their deeds of charity where the largest number of onlookers congregated together. Their "reward" was the admiration of shallow-minded men, as "dust" is the Serpent's meat.
The sin which Christ here reprehended is far more grievous than is commonly supposed, and, we may add, far more prevalent, many of the Lord's own people being guilty of it. It consists of making men, rather than God, the judges and approvers of their actions. And do not we often fall into this snare? When we do that which is right, and yet incur thereby the displeasure of our fellows, are we not mole grieved than when by sin we offend God Himself? If so, does not that clearly prove that our hearts have more regard to the censure of men than of the Lord? Are we not deeply hurt when our fellows dishonor God? Are we more afraid of offending mortal man than the everlasting God? When in sore straits, which comforts us the more: the assurances of earthly friends to relieve us or the promises of the Lord?
"But when thou doest thine alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (v. 3). This Divine precept is designed to restrain the corrupt ambition of our hearts after the praise of men. It goes much farther than the commandment in verse 2. There the Lord had forbidden that ostentatious giving of alms which is done for the purpose of self-advertisement and the procuring of the applause of our fellows; while here He prohibits any self-satisfaction or complacency in the performing of this good work. It is strange how the commentators see in verse 3 nothing more than the repetition of that which is found in verse 2, quite missing the force of "let not thy left hand know [approve of] what thy right hand doeth." We are to give alms in simplicity, with the sole intent and desire of pleasing God only. When a good work has been done, we should dismiss it from our minds and not congratulate ourselves upon it, and press on to what is yet before us.
"That thine alms may be in secret" (v. 4). Here is still another instance where the language of Christ in this discourse must not be taken literally and absolutely, or otherwise any act of mercy which came under the cognizance of our fellows would be thereby prohibited. Certainly the primitive Christians did not always conceal their donations, as is clear from Acts 11:29, 30. Secrecy itself may become a cloak to avarice, and under the pretence of hiding good works we may hoard up our money to spend upon ourselves. There are times when a person of prominence may rightly excite his backward brethren by his own example of liberality. So we must not understand Christ as here forbidding all charitable actions which may be seen by others, but rather understand Him to mean that we should perform them as unobtrusively as possible, making it our chief concern to aim at the approbation of God therein.
"That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly" (v. 4). Though there be nothing meritorious about our best performances, yea, though everything we do is defiled, nevertheless "God is not unrighteous to forget our work and labour of love, which ye have showed toward His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Heb. 6:10). Nevertheless, it must be a work of faith-for "without faith it is impossible to please Him"-and a labour of love, if it is to receive God's commendation. In the Divine administration it is so ordered that, in the end, the selfish person is disappointed, while he who seeks the good of others is himself the gainer. The more we truly aim at our Father's approbation, the less shall we be concerned about either the praise or contempt of the world. The Divine reward, in the day to come, will be given "openly," before an assembled universe. "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the heart: and then shall every one have praise of God" (1 Cor. 4:5).