So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6: 2-4 – NAS)
Jesus continues to address our impulse to make production numbers out of our actions, especially our giving to the poor. His description of a philanthropist walking down the streets with a trumpeter going before him playing a fanfare seems a bit over-the-top. That is, until we consider news stories where Billionaire Bigname donates a million dollars to some charity at a lavish event for the groundbreaking of the charity’s new headquarters. That is today’s street-walking trumpeter.
Jesus says that those who make those public displays already have their reward in full. And apparently that reward doesn’t have much to do with the kingdom of heaven, since He makes no mention of that.
Why is it that we do make production numbers of our giving?
I suppose some of it is our wanting the reassurance that we are good people and that others know this to be true. It is a curious thing that we often do what we know is right, often with absolute certainty, and yet after the act is done, we still want the reassurance that we made the right choice. It is as if we cannot let go of the act. By holding on to the action and making it public, we seem to continue to exert some ownership or control over the gift.
Which is contrary to the whole point of giving anything to anyone, of course. You cannot give something away and then continue to exert control of the gift, let alone make a big splash about the fact that the recipient has the gift. Which is why so very often people give large sums of money to charities and specify how the money is to be used. “Build this new wing here!” (whether or not the institution needs the new wing). We might even cover up the fact that we are giving the gift for self-aggrandizement by insisting that the new Whatever that will be built with the gift be named in memory of some Loved One Of Ours. Because, no, obviously we’re not doing it to draw attention to ourselves, but rather so everyone remembers the name of our parent, grandparent, uncle or other beloved mentor of ours.
Our motives in giving can be very mixed, especially when they are large-scale. Yes, it is good to do honor to the memory of someone who has inspired and guided us in our lives. We should indeed lift up examples of Good Living. But even if what we intended goes astray, we should let go of the gift.
Recently in the news there was the story of a major music star who was in contention with a hospital because a gift given to the hospital to honor the musician’s mother was not about to be used the way the musician understood it would be (a specific type of care facility). Because the gift was not going to be used the way he wanted and intended, he sued the hospital for the return of the gift. The jury agreed with him, and he was awarded a refund plus punitive damages against the hospital for an equal amount.
I read this story and felt there was so much wrong with it. Now, admittedly, the musician wanted to honor his mother with a facility that reflected her concerns and interests. Well and good. But this is a man who can earn a million dollars with very little effort on his part. And his gift to the hospital was $500,000 for the building of a hospital wing. I looked at that and wondered about it, because although I don’t know what hospital construction costs are, it seemed to me that a mere half a million dollars would barely cover the cost of the shell of a small clinic. It wouldn’t finish the building or equip it. But it certainly would help the hospital do something. Whatever the misunderstanding between the musician and the hospital, it seemed amazingly petty to request the money back. Short of out-and-out criminality on the part of the hospital (which was not the case, let us be clear), there was a self-centeredness in demanding the money back.
When I step back and look at it, I can see what Jesus was saying about the nature of the reward for those who have to make a production number of their giving. The musician looked for his reward in a certain type of construction, a particular end result. One that he did not get. And since he didn’t get his reward, he even took back the gift.
Jesus tells us to give in such a way that our left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. Is this possible, we wonder? After all, it is one brain that makes the decisions, so how can one half of our being not know what the other half is doing?
I think the point is that Jesus wants us to be so easily open-handed in our giving that it happens without any more thought than we give to breathing. For the most part, we do not have to consciously expand our lungs to fill them with air: the body just does it. Our giving should be like that – that we can respond to need without weighing “worthiness” or whether anyone notices that we are giving.
Jesus also reminds us that the only one who needs to know about our giving is Our Father God. And God knows all the secret things anyway.
God gives to us in secret. He very rarely makes production numbers out of His gifts to us. I was thinking about this recently, as I was wrestling with anxiety about my circumstances. I had been praying that the Lord deliver a big answer to my troubles, a Big Miracle. But then it struck me that for the past five months, the Lord has met me at every corner and taken care of what was absolutely necessary. Time after time, in small ways from unexpected directions, He has moved providence into my hands, through both my own labor and through the hearts of those that care about me. Are these not miracles? They are. And so many of the gifts that have helped me have been given quietly, almost in secret. But I know they were given and indeed the Lord knows too!
I learned recently that someone I knew had practiced Secret Giving so very well, that even those closest to him did not know of his acts. I marveled at it, at the willingness to give and not even to think about needing acknowledgement from even the recipient. I admit, I have not quite achieved that degree of open-handedness yet. I can do it in fits and starts, but I still often want at least a little acknowledgement. There’ve been occasions where I wanted the recipient to know that I was the one who gifted them. But to learn of this example of someone who had practiced Jesus’ admonition so well, I feel ashamed. What a great reward my friend has with the Lord! It inspires me to want to do better at secret giving. Oh, to be able to let go that easily!
Do we really want to be one of those who already “have their reward in full” – being center stage in a public spectacle in this world? Or would we rather receive our reward from God Himself when we meet Him face-to-face?