“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.
“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”
‘Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘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 honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
At first glance, this is a simple instruction about how you give your money to charity, right? The phrase “Announce it with trumpets” gives a hilarious picture of someone –say at Offering Time at a Sunday service, flourishing his wallet with an orchestral accompaniment! Or like one of those old-time comedians whose every punch-line is underscored with a quick snare-roll and cymbal clash! Here I am! Look at me! I did something good! The pride on evidence here is a very childish one, isn’t it? It’s like examining your child’s picture at the pre-school open day: “Well done! That’s really great! Wow!” Congratulations (while I try not to roll my eyes).
Of course, we’re so familiar with the line (translated here “Announce it with trumpets”) that the absurdist joke factor no longer carries the same punch, but when Jesus said it, it must have been powerful indeed. And like the best observational jokes, memorable, visual and hard-hitting.
In his conversational insights, Jesus invariably moved from performance to motivation. That is to say: what makes you do the things you do? And if you are so keen on audience reaction, what happens when no one is watching? Jesus spoke the same way about prayer: find a private spot, and don’t meander on in loud flowery phrases that will astonish the world.
The thing is: if you can do this giving stuff without any applause, then something truly wonderful happens: You develop a truly giving character, just like God himself! And all of a sudden, it’s not what we give –as if you can quantify these things!- and not even how you give (once you’ve killed the desire for approval)- it’s why you give. Even self-approval can become a snare. It’s like sneaking downstairs in the dead of night and surreptitiously eating a whole bag of candy bars. What I mean to say is: Even self-approval can turn into self-indulgence.
But once the why of giving is clarified, once you have truly learnt to love your neighbor as yourself, then you can give, and give, and enjoy the giving, because you have entered into the character of God. It’s no longer that foolish, childish showing off, and it’s not even that secretly self-indulgent self- approval.
And neither is it a cold formalist duty.
It’s as natural as a father knowing how to give good gifts to his children. That is never a grudging performance! It’s just natural!
So why do you expect God to be any different? And why should you be?
But what of the moment when Jesus says: “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”? Once more, this is over-familiar to English-speakers. It is part of our culture. This makes it difficult but not impossible to imagine the impact on those who heard it for the first time. Once more, it’s a ludicrous picture -a visual joke of one hand sneaking behind the back (!) of the other hand. It raised a huge laugh when Jesus said it, I’m sure.
But what does it mean? It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know how much we give: that’s just daft. We love God with our minds –not without them! No, it’s simply, as Paul put it, that “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”(2 Corinthians 9:7).
Not reluctantly. Not under compulsion. No, no, give as God gives, lavishly, secretly and without fanfare.
There’s something really lovely about secret giving. I can testify to having received many many gifts from people who would be not just appalled but totally non-plussed at being honored for their giving. As they say in Ireland, “Now, why would you do tat?” It’s an interesting question isn’t it?
Maybe this is part of the whole meaning of the gift of Jesus on the cross. It is not an obvious sign of the generosity of God, but secretly, where no one is looking, it’s an act of the deepest love and compassion. The Father who conceived you in love, is giving you the gift of himself, in a package that you can register, shaped like a human, wrapped in pain and misery. But the left hand and the right hand are at cross purposes.
I just have to take it, enter into the mystery of God’s giving.
And join the party.