Godly Giving 6:1-4
The message here is fairly obvious in most English translations of the New Testament. However, it’s easy to miss some of the flavor and context if you aren’t aware of the background.
Matthew chooses the Greek word eleemosune, commonly meaning charitable giving, but the word itself covers a lot more territory. It’s any act of compassion and mercy that helps another human through this life. There’s no lack of wise advice on the hows and whys of mercy in the Talmud, so Jesus goes after the one flaw of the Pharisees in their legalistic implementation of charity. He says you should avoid public notice. If you seek social attention in any way, there was no actual mercy to your action at all; you simply purchased social admiration.
The second verse here is loaded. Around the Temple plaza were donation chests, a common practice from the First Temple. Over time the priests and Levites found it burdensome to keep an eye on those chests to prevent pilfering. During construction of Herod’s Temple, one of the details was to cut a small hole in the outer wall at a convenient height. The wall was thick, and the hole would angle downward like a chute, with a receptacle on the other side that was out of arm’s reach. This small chute was lined with some sort of metal. If you dropped a handful of pennies into it, the racket was substantial to anyone nearby. People would turn to look and get the impression you had made a big donation.
That is, they might think that unless they were savvy cynical peasants. The Pharisees weren’t fooling anyone. We have evidence this noise was what Jesus referred to as “sounding a trumpet” and it would have gotten a snicker from His audience. It was a common practice of socially ambitions Pharisees, more subtle than a literal brassy musical riff, from which we get the English “tooting your own horn.” However, it served the same purpose as sounding a trumpet without being quite so tacky. The Pharisees were careful to do this only when there was a significant audience. Sometimes during low traffic times, they would steer a roving discussion with their peers past those spots so they could pull that stunt. It’s roughly equivalent to big signs today with a section featuring “proudly sponsored by” followed by branding logos and such. It’s considered cheap advertising.
Jesus says that such donors already had what they paid for with human attention. It wasn’t the right way to get God’s attention.
Instead, Jesus proposes a hyperbolic suggestion of keeping your hands ignorant of each other’s doings when you felt moved to give an offering. The equivalent is slipping your hand inside the wall opening past the end of the chute and dropping the coins straight into the receptacle. But more broadly, He promotes a willingness to work in compassion quietly. Do something charitable because you are driven by a passion for divine justice. Of course people are going to find out sooner or later, but that’s not part of the objective. Divine justice is its own reward. It’s the nature of Creation itself. God is the only one who needs to know.
All the modern philosophical blather about the ethics of charity leaves God out of it completely. Never listen to professional charity advisers and fund-raising experts; the charity industry is an abomination. And sometimes you shouldn’t pay attention to what the recipients of charity claim they want and need, but do what God tells you. Give what you have and never let someone try to make you feel guilty. Guilt is the voice of Satan, the Accuser. Do what you know God requires of you; His favor is the only thing that matters.