The Sermon on the Mount—‘Let Your Gifts of Mercy Be in Secret’
FOLLOWING his admonition on proper treatment of an individual’s fellowman, Jesus gave counsel on the type of worship that really counts with God. He began this part of his Sermon on the Mount by saying: “Take good care not to practice your righteousness in front of men in order to be observed by them.”—Matt. 6:1a.
In this instance, “righteousness” means conduct that conforms to God’s standard of what is right. (Compare Matthew 5:6, 20.) God desires people to display righteousness in all aspects of life. This should include a person’s deeds when alone and his relations with God and fellow humans.
Jesus’ words do not mean that godly acts should never be done in front of others, for that would be contrary to his earlier counsel that his hearers ‘let their light shine before men.’ (Matt. 5:14-16) But never should the motive be “in order to be observed by them.” The individual should not seek to make a spectacle of himself as if he were on the stage of a theater.
Jesus declared to all who might be inclined to make a theatrical display of their virtues: “You will have no reward with your Father who is in the heavens.” (Matt. 6:1b) That ‘reward from heaven,’ which includes an intimate relationship with God and the eternal blessings of his Kingdom rule, is not for individuals whose motive in worshiping God is to draw attention to themselves.
For Jews in the first century C.E., three principal aspects of worship were almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Concerning the first of these, Jesus stated: “When you go making gifts of mercy, do not blow a trumpet ahead of you, just as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be glorified by men.”—Matt. 6:2a.
The expression “gifts of mercy” means charitable donations for support of the impoverished. The Hebrew Scriptures often stress the importance of assisting needy individuals. (Prov. 14:21; 28:27; Isa. 58:6, 7) In later times, each Jewish community had a fund for the poor that was collected and distributed from synagogues every week. Each resident was expected to contribute according to his financial status. Many individuals would go beyond this obligation and give extra support to the needy by voluntary contributions. Interestingly, Jesus and his apostles had a common fund for the poor.—John 12:5-8; 13:29.
However, with regard to almsgiving, Jesus admonished his disciples: “Do not blow a trumpet ahead of you.” In other words, ‘Do not publicize your almsgiving.’ That was a regular practice of the Pharisees, whom Jesus called “hypocrites,” that is, persons who pretended to be what they were not. As for advertising charitable donations “in the synagogues and in the streets,” we read in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:
“Rabb[inic] writings bear rich testimony to the theatrical nature of Pharisaic righteousness. . . . While the means for the communal support of the poor was provided by assessment, almsgiving over and above this rested on free gifts. These were made known to the congregation in the synagogues and at fasting services on the open street.” (Vol. III, p. 974) “In the synagogues, esp[ecially] at fasts when in serious crises worship was held in open places in the city . . . , specific sums were often pledged publicly for the poor chest by individuals. . . . We are also told that the givers of greater amounts were specially honoured by being allowed to sit alongside the rabbis at worship.”—Vol. VII, p. 86.
Concerning such hypocrites, Jesus declared: “Truly I say to you, They are having their reward in full.” (Matt. 6:2b) Papyri from the first century C.E. reveal that the Greek word for “they are having . . . in full” (apékho) often appeared in receipts and indicated full possession of an item or sum of money. In his Bible Studies, G. Adolf Deissmann states that, in view of this, Jesus’ words “acquire the more pungent ironical meaning they can sign the receipt of their reward: their right to receive their reward is realised, precisely as if they had already given a receipt for it.” The plaudits of men and perhaps a front seat in the synagogue alongside noted rabbis was all the reward that those hypocrites would get. God would give them nothing.—Compare Matthew 23:6.
“But you,” said Jesus to his listeners, “when making gifts of mercy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.” (Matt. 6:3) The right hand and the left hand are the closest of bodily members on account of being on either side of the torso and they generally cooperate together. Occasionally the one hand might act independently of the other. ‘Not letting the left hand know what the right is doing,’ therefore, would mean that a person would not advertise his charitable deeds, even to those as close to him as the left hand is to the right.
According to Jesus, boastful proclamation of almsgiving should be avoided in order “that your gifts of mercy may be in secret; then your Father who is looking on in secret will repay you.” (Matt. 6:4) Since he dwells in the heavens and is invisible to human eyes, the Creator remains “in secret” as far as mankind is concerned. (John 1:18; 1 John 4:20) ‘Repayment’ from the one “looking on in secret” includes God’s bringing humble worshipers into an intimate relationship with him, his forgiveness of their sins and his granting them eternal life under perfect conditions. (Prov. 3:32; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 21:1-5) How much more is that to be preferred than mere admiration and praise from fellow humans!