Giving For the Glory of God

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God calls us to be generous but we need to be careful about why we give. That's the message this evening. We're on to the next section of this extraordinary Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached to the crowds that surged around him. So we're looking at Matthew 6.1-4.

This is the part one of three parts, because in Matthew 6.1 Jesus gives us a warning, and then so that we take it to heart, he gives three different applications of it – to giving (that's Matthew 6.2-4), then to prayer (in Matthew 6.5-15), and finally to fasting (in Matthew 6.16-18). We're looking this evening at the first of those applications, to giving. We'll cover the others in future weeks. It's a short section, so let's look at it again as a whole before we get into the detail. Here it is – Matthew 6.1-4:

"Beware of practising 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.

"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. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I think we can express Jesus's teaching here in five separate but related points. And you can see those on my outline at the back of the service sheet. So:

First, don't do good in order to be seen to be doing good. This is the warning that Jesus gives, that he then applies to those three aspects of faithful discipleship – giving, prayer and fasting. It's there in Matthew 6.1. This is what Jesus says:

"Beware of practising 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."

So let's be clear – we should be practising righteousness. It's not acts of righteousness that Jesus is warning against, of course. It's doing them for the wrong reasons.

What does it mean to "practise righteousness"? Well righteousness covers all that it means to please our heavenly Father, following Jesus and walking in step with the Holy Spirit, in obedience to his word. But especially "practising righteousness" here refers to what we might call 'religious duties'. All of life is to be lived as an act of thankful worship. Some things fall into the category of what we might call godly religion, properly understood.

So these are not – or should not be – religious acts designed to win God's favour. They are religious acts that are an aspect of living all of our lives as an act of thankful worship for the undeserved grace that God has already shown us in Christ and by the gift of his Spirit.

Jesus is clear that God does graciously reward the rightly motivated practice of righteousness. But wrongly motivated acts of righteousness cause us to miss out on any future reward.

"Beware of practising 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."

The ultimately unsatisfying and short-term admiration of some others is the only reward that the wrongly motivated practice of righteousness gets. So we are to beware of doing good for bad reasons!

Secondly, we should give to those in need (v2a)

This the first part of verse 2, and we mustn't miss the force of that second word there: "when". "Thus when you give." Jesus has no problem with the fact that the hypocrites are giving. His problem is with why they're doing it. "Thus when you give …" Jesus expects us to build giving into the pattern of our lives.

Generosity should be one of the key elements of our discipleship. Why? Because we are made in the image of our generous God. Because we depend utterly on his generosity towards us. Because we follow the example of our saviour who freely gave his life for us. And because the needy need our generosity.

You probably know about the evangelical leaders of the Eighteenth Century who led what we might call a non-violent Christian uprising in this nation that touched the world. But one of the often overlooked features of the evangelicals of that time was how radical their discipleship was in relation to money. Perhaps you're familiar with the way that John Wesley urged people to…

"… gain what you can, by rightful means and hard work without harming others; to save all you can, by avoiding extravagance and needless expense. Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can then give all you can."

Gain, save and give. Simple, profound and hard to follow advice. What may be less well known is the extent to which Wesley lived by his own teaching. He said:

"I value all things only by the price they shall gain in eternity."

Despite the fact that he earned a small fortune, when he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the odd coins he had left.

Giving is our godly religious duty – as a response to grace, and because our giving is necessary. Why is it necessary? Because there are people who need it, according to Jesus: "… when you give to the needy …"

Who are the needy? They are those of us who, for whatever reason, don't have what they need to survive and thrive. There are various kinds of need that we are specifically told to give to in Scripture. There's, full-time Christian workers. As Paul puts it so delicately in 1 Corinthians 9:9, quoting Deuteronomy:

"You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain."

Then we should give to the poor. For instance 1 John 3:17:

"But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

We should not neglect family in need. 1 Timothy 5:8:

"But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

Then according to Jesus in the chapter just before this (Matthew 5:42) – and this is more than a touch disconcerting! – we should give 'to the one who begs' from us.

Giving is powerful. We are to target our giving strategically to where there is need, and to where we are well placed, maybe uniquely well placed, to help the needy.

Thirdly, we should not give hypocritically (v2b)

Look on to the second part of verse 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."

That is, what Jesus has in his sights here is giving to get. That's a contradiction in terms. No doubt those on the receiving end of funds still get a benefit. And in that sense such giving is still giving. But it does not come from a generous spirit. So in another sense, such giving is not really giving at all. It is taking. It is a business transaction with an eye to a profit.

That's what's at the root of what's known as 'prosperity gospel' teaching – the teaching of generosity as a route to prosperity; sowing with a view to the harvest you're going to reap for yourself; giving in order to get rich. What Jesus has in mind is another form of the prosperity gospel, which is giving with a view to our own status and with a view to receiving the praise of other people.

There is one simple test of whether that's the motive, I suppose. If a gift is conditional on the publicity that the gift is going to receive, then that's giving to get – not giving to give. If we would not give if it was not known, then we should watch out – Jesus's warning applies to us.

If we deliberately make our giving known for our own ends – whether that's in the church or in the wider community; and if we are looking for the praise of other people in response to our giving – then, says Jesus, that praise and the status that comes with it is all the reward we're going to get. God will not be pleased. Our giving is essentially self-centred. Even if others do benefit, we'll be using them for our own selfish purposes.

So the lesson is: we should not give hypocritically. Then:

Fourthly, we should keep as quiet as possible about our giving (v3-4a)

On to verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4:

"But when you give to the needy [there's that clear expectation repeated, that this is what we will be doing], do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret."

So, as we've seen, it's the motive that matters – but the method often reveals the motive. The principle here is that we should give as anonymously as we can, given the inevitable constraints. Of course, generally we can't give totally anonymously. And Jesus is clearly not speaking literally when he says that the left hand shouldn't know what the right hand is doing. If our hands could see, you could hardly hide effectively from one hand what the other was doing. And in any case, hands neither see anything nor know nothing. There's a hint of humour, perhaps, in the image that Jesus uses.

The effective administration of giving in the life of the church does require a degree of openness about our giving, at least to those who handle the finances. As does the tax benefit of the Gift Aid system to those charities on the receiving end of our giving. It would be absurd to take what Jesus says here over-literally, to the point where we insisted on such a degree of anonymity that charities lost out on claiming back the tax that we've already paid on our gifts.

What is more, the balance of Scripture indicates that there may even be some occasions when it could be appropriate to make public a gift as a positive and encouraging example to the faithful. The classic example of that is the giving of King David when the people of Israel have their great financial appeal for the funding to construct the Temple in Jerusalem. That's in 1 Chronicles 29, where King David says to the whole assembly of Israel, gathered for the occasion of the appeal:

"… the work is great … So I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able [that is, with his public finances as King] … Moreover, in addition to all that I have provided for the holy house, I have a treasure of my own of gold and silver [that is, his personal as opposed to his public wealth], and because of my devotion to the house of my God I give it to the house of my God …"

And in the New Testament, when Jesus himself sees the poor widow throwing her last coins into the temple treasury, he doesn't criticise her for doing her giving in public, as she clearly is. He makes her a powerful example for all believers for all time. Mark 12.43:

"Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Nonetheless, once we've taken those qualifications into account, we need to beware. It's the motive that matters but the method often reveals the motive. We should be as quiet as possible about our giving.

Fifthly, we can rejoice in the reward to be found in pleasing Jesus.

This is the second part of verse 4:

"And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

There is amazing divine encouragement in the teaching of Jesus. No sooner has he warned us against giving for the sake of short-term and self-centred rewards from the praise of others than he encourages us with the knowledge that giving for the right reasons and in the right way does bring a reward – an eternal reward from God himself. So, ironically, the reward that we get when we don't give for the sake of a reward is ultimately massively more valuable than the immediate reward that the hypocrites get.

What is more our eternal reward starts now. It just can't be measured in pounds and pence. Remarkably, given our consumerist culture, I heard a report the other day of research that finds that those who give rather than spending on themselves are happier than those who spend on themselves rather than giving. When we learn true, Christ-inspired generosity for the sake of others, we see the needs of the needy met. And that brings with it its own reward.

We experience freedom from slavery to money. And that's worth a very great deal. Our fellowship with God, Father, Son and Spirit, is deepened. And that's priceless. And then beyond all that, we store up treasure in heaven. Spiritual treasure. And that is a blessing for all eternity to come. As Randy Alcorn puts it in his brilliant little book Treasure in Heaven:

"You can't take it with you but you can send it on ahead."

Heavenly treasures are the eternal rewards that come our way when we put Christ before money and possessions in our lives. They are way out of reach, for instance, of whoever it was who broke into our house and stripped it of the things that we were most inclined to treasure some years ago. And an economic crisis devalues treasures in heaven not a jot. Stock market crashes simply serve to emphasise how utterly secure and untouchable are treasures in heaven.

What exactly are these eternal rewards? The bible is not explicit. But we do know that the apostle Paul's great eternal goal was simply to know Christ. Any other rewards will be bound up with that. And beside knowing Christ, anything else will pale into insignificance.

It is right and good that we can rejoice in the rewards to be found in pleasing Jesus.

So let's learn this simple but deep lesson. Let's learn to give as Jesus gave – not for our own sake, but for the sake of others and for the glory of God.

Last week Hurricance Barry battered Louisiana. But that was nothing to 2005, when Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, caused $80 billion of damage to property and killed over 1800 people.

The one time labour politician Roy Hattersley wrote a column in the Guardian in its aftermath, which I've never forgotten. It was titled: 'Faith Does Breed Charity', with the sub-heading 'We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings'. He wrote:

"The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.

Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil."

Christian believers, he argued…

"are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, [and] replace the sodden sleeping bags … Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand."

End of quote. There's nothing new about this. Right from the early days of the Christian faith the church community has become known for its compassionate service and generosity towards those in need.

For instance, there's a remarkable letter from the Roman Emperor Julian who tried to revive paganism but found that Christianity was on the rise. He wrote to a pagan priest:

"It is disgraceful that … while impious Galileans [that is, Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!"

Let it be our prayer that in obedience to the teaching of our Lord and Saviour we will display that same generosity and bear the same witness to a godless world in our generation – not out of self-centred motives, but for the sake of the needy and for the glory of God.

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