by Michael E. Brooks
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV).
The traditional contribution basket, so familiar in the United States, is not so common in South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Nepal.
There the favored implement for collecting donations in worship assemblies is the offering bag. This is typically a long narrow tube-like cloth bag held open at the top by a metal band, to which is attached one or two wooden handles.
The usher extends the bag to each worshipper who usually plunges his or her hand, holding their contribution tightly, deeply into the bag, preserving privacy as to the amount of their donation.
Most of the time everyone present in the assembly will give, even the very small toddlers. The amount of their gifts is normally modest, but so is their income. Their commitment to giving at least a little however is to be commended.
When Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), his emphasis was to define acceptable religion before God. It was not, as was popularly believed in his day, the outward ritualistic performance of such leaders as the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Rather he demanded a complete submission to God, in spirit and in flesh (Matthew 5:48).
In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the hypocrites external religious actions — notably giving, prayer and fasting. He does not criticize them for doing such things. In fact he makes it plain that true worshippers will perform those (and other) outward rites.
In each case he condemns the hypocrites for their motives (and consequential methods). He then says, “When you give (or pray or fast).” He makes it plain that the faithful will give, pray and fast. There is nothing wrong with these activities and we are not to demean them.
Jesus’ emphasis is that the motive and attitude behind ones actions may validate or invalidate them. All prayers (even some “in the name of the Lord”) are not heard. All gifts do not honor God. The worshipper must examine himself (1 Corinthians 11:29) to ensure the worthiness of his actions.
Some have taken Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:3 that one is to be so secretive that he hardly knows what he is doing himself, as an excuse for miserly giving. The Sermon on the Mount is filled with extravagant expressions (“cut off your hand, pluck out your eye”, etc.). These give emphasis and importance to his instructions. Our gifts (and all religious activity) are to honor God, not ourselves. We are not the focus of our rituals — God is.
Unfortunately, some may take advantage of the privacy provided by the offering bag to conceal their stinginess, not to show modesty in their giving. God sees in secret, and knows our hearts.
Such grudging gifts do not please God, or bring him honor (2 Corinthians 9:7). Rewards will no doubt be withheld. But the generous sincere gifts of genuine believers will be rewarded publicly, both now and eternally.