Jesus' Teaching on Giving (Matt 6:2-4)

Excerpt from Chuck Quarles, The Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Teaching to the Contemporary Church (B&H Academic, 2011).

Jesus forbade His disciples to “sound a trumpet” when they gave offerings to support the poor. Sounding a trumpet may simply be a vivid metaphor for calling attention to one’s act of charity. In some ancient texts “sound a trumpet” meant “to advertise” or “to call attention to oneself with fanfare.” However, the reference could be literal rather than metaphorical. The offering chests in the temple were called “shofar chests” or “trumpet chests” since the mouths of the coffers were trumpet-shaped, wide at the top and narrow at the entrance into the chest, in order to facilitate giving the offering and in order to prevent theft from the offering chest. Sounding the trumpet, then, might be a reference to tossing coins noisily into the trumpet-shaped coffer and thereby calling attention to one’s generosity. Jesus said that the giver blew his trumpet “to be applauded by people” (lit., “so that they might be glorified by the people”). With these words Jesus made the true motive of the giver very clear. He did not give out of a desire to meet the needs of the poor, nor did He give out of pity for the underprivileged. Instead he gave out of a desire for self-aggrandizement. What was intended to be a selfless act was perverted into a completely selfish act.

Jesus said such conduct is hypocritical. The word hupocritēs originally referred to a play-actor who performed on the stage of the Greek or Roman theater. The verbal form of the word was frequently used in Jewish writings in the time between the writing of the OT and NT to speak of the act of “pretending.” Many ancient play-actors aspired to be celebrities adored by the masses. They lived for the thrill of standing ovations and the prizes and awards sometimes presented for excellent dramatic performances. The hypocrites to whom Jesus referred were spiritual play-actors who pretended to have a piety that they did not actually possess in order to inspire the applause of a human audience.

In Matt 15:7–9 Jesus appealed to Isa 29:13 to describe hypocrisy: “Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.” This suggests that hypocrisy involves pretended devotion to God, empty worship, and the substitution of human authority for divine authority.

Jesus warned that if a giver gives in hopes of receiving recognition from others for his gift, he will receive that recognition but no greater reward. “They’ve got their reward!” (Matt 6:2) means that they have already received their full reward and can expect no other reward. The verb epechousin means “to receive in full what is due.” The verb was originally a technical term for providing a receipt marked “paid in full.” The point is that if a person seeks human applause through acts of piety, that applause will be his entire reward. The account is then closed and no further reward is due. He who seeks such earthly rewards for righteousness forfeits heavenly rewards for those righteous deeds. So Jesus then urged His followers to take any measure necessary to ensure that acts of righteousness were driven by the proper motivation.

“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (v. 3) figuratively prohibits a person from pridefully celebrating his own personal acts of righteousness. The two hands are obviously different members of the same body, and the image of keeping one’s acts of goodness secret even from oneself is a hyperbole meaning that the disciple must not give so that he can pat himself on the back or applaud his own goodness. If a disciple should refuse to seek to be self-complimentary, how much more should he avoid seeking to be a spiritual celebrity in the eyes of others. Jesus’ disciples could be sure that their actions are not motivated by a desire for human accolades if they performed their acts of righteousness in secrecy without the knowledge of other people. If one gives compassionately and humbly, motivated only by his concern for the needs of others and his desire to glorify God, he will receive a heavenly and eternal reward for his act: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 4). Because God is omnipresent no act is hidden from Him. He sees acts of righteousness that no one else can see. The references to “Father” rather than to “God” in both verses 1 and 4 are intentional and probably allude to the fact that just as a child seeks the approval of his parents above all others, so the approval of the heavenly Father will matter more to the child of God than the approval of other people. The identity of the disciple as a child of God is apparent in his desire to please the heavenly Father and hear his words of approval.