Matthew 6:1–4 (ESV): Don’t do good deeds just to be seen by others
We have moved from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6, but Jesus is still continuing on with the sermon that he has been giving for the last few passages. In this passage, he touches on how acts of righteousness should be performed, specifically focusing on giving to the poor as a concrete example of his lesson.
And the “how” is very simple: When you do something good—such as giving to the poor—you should not do it in such a way that others will see. If you make a big deal about the fact that you’re giving—“Look at me! Look at me! I’m giving to the poor!”—then you’ve already got your reward, but if you give in secret, not seeking any kind of reward here on earth, then the Father will reward you for that.
My first thought is that I disagree with the people who put the section headings in the ESV and NIV versions of the Bible. In both cases, they titled this section “Giving to the Needy,” but that’s not really what this passage is about. The focus of this passage isn’t on giving to the needy, and in fact Jesus simply takes it for granted that believers will be giving to the needy. The focus is instead on how it should be done. (In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “give to the needy,” he’s saying, “when you give to the needy—because you will, if you’re a believer—this is how you should do it.”) I liked the title in the NKJV better, which is “Do Good to Please God.”
Of course, this is a good time to remind my readers that these section headings are not actually part of the Bible; they’re added on top of the text of the Bible in order to help you understand what the different sections are about, but they’re not actually part of the inspired Word of God. (For that matter, neither are the chapter or verse numbers, although those are standardized across all translations of the Bible.) If you ever read the beginning section of your Bible, before Genesis—the Preface or Introduction or something—they’ll probably make that clear.
There are a lot of people who would disagree with this passage. (Well, there are people who will disagree with everything Jesus said, but I mean even devout Christians who would disagree with this passage.) There is a very prevalent notion among Christians that it’s good to give in public, to set an example for others. I assume they would argue that if you’re giving in public for the right reasons it’s okay. And yet… Jesus doesn’t promote that idea. He could have told us that when we give in public we need to be careful about our motives, but he didn’t; he simply told us not to give in public. We obviously didn’t get the message, though, because I will often walk into a church where there will be little plaques on certain pews, saying “This pew donated by so and so,” or, “this offering table donated in memory of so and so,” or that type of thing. Maybe the “in memory of” thing I can get behind, but I really can’t reconcile “this thing donated by so and so” with Biblical principles. It’s exactly what Jesus was telling us not to do. (And I’m not even necessarily as annoyed with the givers as I am with the church leaders who decided to accept that gift, and put up the plaque. Shouldn’t a pastor or elder have stepped in at some point, and said, “this doesn’t follow Biblical principles, and we’re not going to do it at our church”?)
That being said, though, Jesus talks about giving “in secret” (verse 4 (ESV)), which may not always be possible. For example, if you’re walking down the street, and give some money to a homeless person, that person will know that you’ve given them the money; I think this is okay, if your attitude is correct. In other words, that you’re giving for the right reason: Because it’s right to give to the poor, and not so that you will be thanked by the person. This is sort of giving in as private a way as you can, under the circumstances. I don’t think that Jesus would want us to use this passage as an excuse not to give to the poor; “I can’t give money to that guy because if I do he’ll see me, and it won’t be in secret.”
I have also, in the past, struggled with how this passage relates to giving at church. When put our money in the collection plate, should we give anonymously, and simply forgo the tax credits that the government gives us in Canada? (And would it be so bad, to forgo those tax credits? But of course that would open up a whole other discussion about giving, and how we should treat those tax credits.) I’m not sure how most churches handle giving, but it’s probably similar to how it’s done at our church, where we’ve made it as anonymous as possible: when you give, you have a numbered envelope, and the only person who would ever know how much you’ve given is the church secretary, who prints out the tax receipts each year. We also have a “benevolent offering,” which goes toward helping the poor, and that is completely anonymous (meaning there’s no tax receipt for it), unless others happen to see what you’re putting in the collection plate. (Speaking of which, based on this passage I think it’s pretty clear that you should not be making pains to get noticed by your neighbours, when you drop your money in the collection plate!)
I haven’t really come to a conclusion about this point about church giving; I used to do it one way, and then switched to doing it the other way. (By “one way” and “the other way” I mean whether I used the numbered envelopes for giving, or gave anonymously—but I’m not saying which way I used to do it, and which way I switched to.) So I’m definitely not advocating that you should forgo the tax credits, and only give anonymously. But it is worth a thought, I think, even if the conclusion is that you’re fine doing it the way you’re doing it.
After all, the point isn’t to become a modern-day Pharisee, and turn Jesus’ teachings into the new rules that we slavishly follow. It’s to examine your heart, and question your motives. There are always aspects of our lives that can be improved, even if giving doesn’t happen to be your particular issue.