Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
For this study we begin the second chapter of the Sermon. Of course, it must be remembered that, in the original, there were neither chapters or verses. These divisions were added long ago to make it easier to refer to specific parts of scripture. Very useful.
Actually these divisions in scripture are also a little dangerous. Why? Because it makes it easier to take only a verse and forget about the context. There are quite a few false doctrines being circulated today that have been the result of taking scripture out of context.
Earlier in this series of studies I showed how one verse in chapter 15, talking about marriage and divorce, becomes very bad doctrine indeed when the verse is taken out of context of the chapter as a whole. The section of scripture that includes that verse always followed a repeating pattern. Jesus quoted the Old Testament, and then showed, through new teaching, how the literal interpretation of the old testament, and the legalistic application of it, falls a long way short of the standards required to enter the Kingdom. In fact we saw repeatedly that the actual standards are impossible or unbearable to apply.
Then we come repeatedly to the basic teaching of the gospel, that the righteousness and perfection is fulfilled in Jesus Christ himself. And that being said, we do not then make the New Testament into new chains to bind us like the Pharisees did with the Old Testament. That would be totally contrary to the whole point Jesus was making through repeated examples.
I think that this is quite a well-known scripture and the meaning does not take any deep thinking to bring us to a useful understanding. I think we can all identify in one way or another with what is being said here. We all know what it means to be a hypocrite. We have all witnessed those who publicly do good deeds, yet in secret they are another kind of person altogether. In England one only has to mention the name Jimmy Saville…
What we are often far less willing to consider is our own hypocrisy. When we join with the congregation each Sunday, this is something that is seen in public. Maybe you have some nice words to share. Maybe you make the tea or bring some cakes or biscuits, and delight in your giving. And the next day you are walking on the streets of your own town and there is a homeless person near to starvation holding out a cup, but you pretend you did not see and walk on by…
Or maybe you go home from church, shout at your wife and beat the kids. Or in the evening get drunk and are not in full control of yourself. Or maybe the next day at work, steal some stock for yourself, or treat your underling harshly. Or creep up to the boss while stepping on the reputation of others.
There are many ways that hypocrisy can show its ugly face. Praising Jesus on Sunday and his name is a blasphemy on Monday. Or speaking about forgiveness on Sunday, or saying the Lord’s Prayer, with it’s important section about forgiveness, and then you go home and still do not phone the person who is in your family or was your friend in the past and yet who you have not spoken to for weeks or months or even years.
As an aside, I can say that it is worth learning that there’s a secret here: even if the situation is not your fault, be the one to say sorry. Seriously. Because at the minimum you have been a hypocrite to have allowed the situation to stand.
This passage of scripture is much more than about giving to the offering, or into a special collection for the 3rd world missionary fund. This is a principle for the whole of life. What is done in secret is seen by the Lord – and so you might as well make sure that it is good things that are done in secret.
There are some commentators that point out the potential self-contradiction of scripture here, because in another place Jesus said to let our light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify the Father who is in heaven.
I do not see a contradiction. The point here is not about what is public, it is about pride and hypocrisy. It is about self-righteousness and making yourself appear to be better than others. It is about seeking the praise of men and women instead of simply wanting to please God.
There is a big ‘secret’ here – but it is an open secret. The truth is that, if you are really walking with the aim of pleasing God and following the teachings of Jesus in this sermon, then you will not be seen as the best thing since sliced bread among other so-called Christians, and the worldly person will simply shake their head and not understand.
For instance, you love your enemies… at a time when old-school evangelical leaders are joining to increase xenophobia and a war against Islamic followers. You give donations to the homeless and penniless in the street, instead of calling them layabout losers. You give a room to a person temporarily homeless and help them get ‘back on their feet’ and especially work to help them re-establish some self esteem. But you have to listen to those in the congregation who say that the person is taking advantage of you, or that it looks bad because it looks like you live in sin.
Love in action is not popular. You need to just do it, no trumpets, no ceremony, just do it.
And for me, one of the biggest examples of hypocrisy is found in those who just can’t resist to ‘tell the truth in love.’ I have seen the harm done this way so often. Often the situation, whatever it is, is already known by elders or leaders in the church. Often it is already being dealt with. Yet the confrontation brought about by ‘telling the truth in love’ undoes a lot of the progress that has happened already. Worse, the attacked person (and yes, I would call this a Satanic attack) can feel that many people are talking about him or her behind their back. They can feel like they are judged harshly by the whole congregation. And so it becomes a difficult ordeal to attend church again – and for many they can begin to stay away.
Such conversations very rarely tell the truth – it is usually legalism or even a misinterpretation of scripture. And such conversations are almost never in love, but in pride. It is self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
We were given many examples in the previous chapter of what it means to be a child of the Father and to follow Jesus. And we were shown most of all that to do so perfectly is impossible through the law and legalism, and impossible through our own strength.
We need to identify with the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. Being clothed with the life and righteousness that is Jesus, we are salt and light in the world. No trumpets, no ceremony. Just do it!