Society is apt to take notice whenever the wealthy establish a foundation for the sake of charitable giving. Such persons are lauded for their generosity and good work in giving to those in need. More often than not, these people seek this publicity, wanting us to know how open-handed they truly are.
The world pursues the accolades of men, but God’s people are not to do the same. In fact, if we practice righteousness for the accolades of other people, Jesus tells us we have no reward from our Father in heaven (Matt. 6:1). He applies this general principle to the three chief acts of Jewish piety — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting — beginning in today’s passage with giving to the poor.
Our Savior warns us against sounding the trumpet when we give. In His own context He may be referring to the priestly blowing of the shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet) whenever there is a great need in the community. When this happened in His day, there was often an ostentatious display of men closing up shop and running toward the temple to be the first ones seen responding to the call. Trumpet-shaped collection boxes where money could be deposited to help the poor were present at the temple in the first century a.d., and these may also be the basis for Christ’s analogy in verses 2–4. Coins thrown into these boxes might make a loud noise, announcing that a great gift has been given. In any case, our Lord’s point is quite clear: Do not give in order to receive praise from men.
As Matthew Henry notes in his commentary, Jesus does not teach that it is always “unlawful to give alms when men see us.” Sometimes the only way we can help others is in front of other people. In keeping with the perfect righteousness Jesus has described in Matthew 5, John Chrysostom reminds us that Christ “is not focusing simply on the outward act done but the inward intent” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 19.2). Just as under the old covenant (Deut. 15:11), Jesus assumes we will give to the poor, and this must be done in hopes for a reward from God, not from others (Matt. 6:4b). Let us do all we can to give our alms, but with the aim of caring so little for the praise of men that we are ourselves scarcely aware of our own generosity.
Augustine says, “The praise of others need not even be sought by one who acts rightly” (Sermon on the Mount, 2.2.5). Keeping track of our giving is not inconsistent with the Lord’s admonition that we do not let our right hand know what the left one is doing. Yet we are not to keep track so that we may show others just how good we are. As you give your money to the poor, ask yourself if you desire the praise of men more than God’s commendation.
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