Sixth in series: The Sermon on the Mount
New International Version (NIV) Giving to the Needy 6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “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 honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
when Vince and Kyle asked me to speak about this passage I got excited. There are really not too many obscure things about the passage, but it has the power to be life transforming. As you know we are continuing the series on Jesus’ sermon on the mount, where it seems that Jesus is pointing to a higher moral standard than religious people were used to in those days.
Like Vince has been saying as well, Jesus seems to do this without a judgmental finger pointing and shame inducing attitude towards his audience, but to encourage people toward a life-giving humility -- especially because the most religious people in his society, the Pharisees, displayed the opposite of humility -- they seemed like arrogant show-offs to the masses.
In the passage today Jesus is not asking people to do more than what they’ve been used to, he’s just asking them to do it differently. The difference here is one of motivation. Jesus seems to be saying look, I it is a wonderful thing anytime someone is good or generous toward the needy, but it is a more wonderful thing when your motivation is pure. Don’t be motivated to do good things so that others will see them and like you more, or respect you more, or admire you or pay attention to you. That’s the shift, it’s from the attention and approval of others to the attention and approval of God.
Now, if you were with us last month for one of Kyle’s talks from earlier in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, this is in a bit of contrast to something Jesus already said:
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Huh? What’s going on here? Why is Jesus saying to let our light shine so that others may see it in chapter 5, and then in chapter 6 he says don’t let others see what you’re doing?
This is an apparent contradiction. Now the difference between a contradiction and a paradox is that a paradox is a contradiction that when seen in the appropriate light, turns out to make sense after all. The Bible has many paradoxes. It’s a bit of a fun thing actually whenever I prepare a Bible Study, I look for a paradox that can get people discussing a certain topic, because the more we wrestle with a paradox, the more we can view it from multiple angles, the more we learn.
One thing that’s always important to look at is context. In this case, the larger question is: who get’s the glory? In the first passage, the focus is on the glory of God - let your light shine so that people see how amazing God is. But in the second passage, the focus is on self-congratulation - give to others so people see how amazing you are. If you think about it, when people see an act that is hypocritical, most of the time, they know it, and of course the glory does not go to God in that case. Actually, when it’s religious people doing such hypocritical things, it might actually take glory away from God! Because people see that and think: this is a person of God? Must not be much of a God.
On the other hand, when people see a religious person who exudes a true humility in their person and in their actions, that is what does give glory to God. In fact the passage is saying that when people’s hearts are full of God’s light, you can’t hide it if you tried. You can’t hide it any more than you can hide a city on a hill.
So if you can’t hide it, there’s another paradox, how can your right hand not know what your left hand is doing? In this case the answer seems to be right where we started, with motivation. What Jesus is saying is that our motivation should not be to be seen by others. It should only be for God. God alone is our audience.
This is an especially important thing to remember, because there is not really a way to follow Jesus, where we can choose to care more about what other people think than what God thinks. Jesus is quite uncompromising about that. As we follow Jesus we need to know that our focus needs to be on what Jesus thinks not what others think.
Why is Jesus so uncompromising on this? He must have a good reason!
Ultimately, this is about self-worth, and where we get our validation from. If we look to others around us for validation it is a constantly moving target. It is elusive, and it never satisfies. In my 20’s I felt God wanted me to work in science, and I did, but some of my friends had more professional jobs that seemed to have more status and they were highly successful. When I would get together with my men’s group, one was a highly successful banker, the other a highly successful lawyer, the third was a doctor. We’d meet at my friend’s lawfirm downtown and I’d be in jeans and sweaters and they’d be in suits and ties, we’d meet in a fancy conference room where I was distinctly out of place, and I have to tell you, it was pretty hard not to care more what God thought than what they thought. I remember one time I was on the train ride home, and I found myself playing the same tapes in my head about how I was not successful, and not doing as well as my friends, and then all of a sudden I heard a very different tape in my head. The realization came to me that I was being faithful to God, and that God was happy with that, and that that is all that mattered.
I wish I could tell you that lasted forever, but it made enough of an impression for a little while that I got curious about it and asked my spiritual director at the time. He said something interesting to me, that God sometimes gives us these moments of clarity to help validate our faith, to show us that we’re on the right track.
Even today, when I’m tempted to post stuff on facebook to show everyone that I did something that I think makes me look cool, there’s always a check in my spirit. Now it’s not because I’m not cool of course, we all know that I am,
but you know I have learned over the years that whenever I do that, whenever I try to get validation by sneaking in a story about my success or my coolness, I always walk away feeling worse. I feel a sense of being more empty than I did before, I feel actually more insecure after I share it, not less.
I think that’s a large part of the reason that Jesus is so adamant about this. It is because it hurts more than it helps.
Now I have to tell you this idea of caring more what God thinks than what others think is a notion that can be abused, especially by well meaning parents. I’ve seen it done in families where parents will set it as a moral standard for their kids, their junior high kid might want to buy the latest fashionable clothes so they can fit in with their friends, and their parents will say “hey you should care more about what God thinks than what others think” well, that’s not taking into account the child’s developmental needs at that age, and the parents are not being sensitive to the fact that their kids’ faith is not at the same place as theirs.
But just because it can be abused doesn’t mean that Jesus is wrong….
So what happens when we do put Jesus first? What happens when we do stuff seeking only God’s approval, and nobody knows about it? Well we are told there are rewards…This idea of rewards that Jesus talks about is a really important one for our church, because it captures a much fuller picture of following Jesus than most people in the modern Western world have been taught Largely the teaching from the modern Western church has been if you follow Jesus, you go to heaven after you die. The idea is that heaven is a perfectly good place, and there can’t be any better. That is a description from the Bible, where God says that there will be no tears and no suffering.
But… the indication throughout the Bible is that there are degrees of experiencing heaven -- this isn’t just an “after you die” thing. Jesus himself talks about rewards 11 times in the book of Matthew. Since we trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, it’s fair for us to pay attention to that.
I think that these rewards in heaven have to do with increasing the capacity of our hearts to experience joy………... There are things that we can do that Jesus says will result in greater joy. In this case, what Jesus is referring to is giving to the needy in secret.
The thing that never ceases to amaze me is how science show us that what Jesus taught is backed up by study after study. There’s this one scientific paper that was published in 2013 in that said that this was actually a universal finding. They found it in culture after culture. The authors looked at three studies.
In the first study based on survey data from Gallup, over 200,000 people were surveyed in 136 countries, and the data showed clearly that giving to others made people feel good. In fact it didn’t matter whether it was a rich or poor country, the correlation was always there.
In the second study, people in Canada, Uganda, and India when people were asked to remember a time when they gave to others financially, they felt happier than when they remembered spending on themselves.
The third study was done in Canada and South Africa, and in that study, the subjects were randomly chosen to buy stuff for charity or for themselves, and you guessed it, the ones who bought for charity reported stronger positive feelings.
OK, so if Jesus does not convince you, hopefully this one scientific paper got your attention. And that’s just one of many many scientific papers that show the same thing.
But let’s get back to Jesus. Jesus was talking about eternal rewards, but the thing about eternal rewards is that we can start to experience them now. We can start to have a little bit of heaven now. The problem is that this is such a counter cultural viewpoint. Our world says that if you buy for yourself you will feel heavenly. The most heavenly looking experiences we see is in commercials almost always are showing people buying and consuming things themselves, not giving to others. This message of Jesus turns this view upside down. As you’ve heard earlier in this series, this section of Jesus’ teachings turns our understanding of the world upside down. In today’s text, it says that giving to others will actually make us happier than spending on ourselves, and as we’ve just talked about, this has strong scientific backing.
This idea that there are things that we can do to get a bit of heaven now is very intriguing to me. You see I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that there are very few things in life that are guaranteed. I challenge you to name one thing in this life that cannot be taken from you by accident or illness or some other misfortune. I don’t say this to get gloomy here, but simply to speak truth. The idea that we can control our lives and protect what we have is flawed. It does not ultimately work.
In fact, one cause for anxiety in my own life has been this feeling that I need to control my life so that I can be happy. Of course the more I try to control, the more I realize it can’t be done. The more I realized it can’t be done, the more anxious I would get.
One breakthrough for me was to realize that if I can’t bank on the things I have in this world, then the only thing I can really bank on is the rewards that Jesus talks about. I believe that what Jesus says can be trusted. I’ve been following him now for almost 35 years, and he’s always been true to what he says. He does not promise a life without suffering, in fact quite the opposite, he pretty much says we will have hard times. But he does say that we will have rewards. I have found that he’s always been true to his word. That’s why today I feel like I can encourage you to take Jesus at his word as well. Focus on the rewards that he teaches about. His rewards are far more reliable than anything in this life. If you want to build your life on something that will last, build it on the words of Jesus. In the end, that’s the only thing that we can count on. This week, I want to encourage you to look for an opportunity to do something just for him, something done in secret, just between you and God, Whether it’s an extended time of prayer, or a fast, or giving generously in an anonymous way. See if you can build that into your life this week. I also want to pray for our ability to care more what God thinks than what we think, because I know that it’s hard to do, God knows that it’s hard for us to do, and he is willing to help us, so let’s ask him...