Jesus tells his followers to do their spiritual disciples in private. He assumes they will give to the poor, pray and fast, but he does not want them to draw attention to themselves in these spiritual disciplines. Instead, Jesus says, when you pray, go into your closet, when you fast, do not tell anyone, and when you give, “do not even let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.”
The reason for this is that the hypocrite calls attention to themselves when they give. Jesus tells his followers to “sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” Did anyone actually make a public announcement by blowing a shofar when they gave?
Contrary to popular teaching, there is no evidence anyone in the Second Temple Period announced their giving with trumpets. Imagine someone in the Temple blowing on a shofar to get everyone’s attention and loudly announcing they were about to give their offering to the Lord, maybe even announcing how much they are giving and what percentage of their income it represents.
The image Jesus creates here is intentionally ridiculous, it is a parody of how people draw attention to their wealth and generosity. John Nolland calls it “grotesque exaggeration” (Matthew, 274). Before objecting that Jesus would not exaggerate, a bit later in the Sermon he will say some people complain about a speck in someone’s eye even though they have a log in their own eye. This is a clear exaggeration! In Matthew 5:30 Jesus said “if your right hand offends you, cut it off,” a clear example of exaggeration.
Although Jesus intentionally exaggerates the activity of the hypocrites, people did in fact boast about their giving in the ancient world. There are examples of ancient synagogues with the names of the donors engraved on the walls. Ever Greek and Roman city had dozens of statues donated by some wealthy patron in order to demonstrate their benevolence and draw attention to their name in order to increase their honor and status in the city. Even ““do not even let the left hand know what the right hand is doing” is hyperbole, since it is physically impossible for a hand to know anything. Jesus’s point is simply “keep your alms giving private.”
If someone does boast about what they give, what are they actually boasting about? Potentially it is their piety, the depth of their commitment to God, or how spiritual they are. But it is also likely someone who boasts in their giving is boasting about how wealthy they really are. If someone boasts about a large gift, they are really saying, “Look how wealthy I am, I can afford to give this huge gift!”
Who are these hypocrites? Based on parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 23, most agree Jesus has the Pharisees in mind when he describes the activity of the hypocrites in Matthew 6.
As with other elements of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses on the attitude behind the action. If someone gives in order to be recognized as a generous person, or to appear to be spiritual, or to be thanked publicly for their gift, then they have “received their reward.”
This desire for recognition is certainly common in contemporary culture. A huge mega-corporation may fund some public philanthropic program, but it is not a completely an act of kindness since the company name is prominently displayed. Perhaps a company gives to deflect criticism, like an oil companies running TV ads about how much they care about the environment and how they make the world better for harp seals and snow crabs (without mentioning the thousands of tons of oil spilled into the environment every year). They are trying to build goodwill with people and show that they are a good a gracious company.
How does the follower of Jesus live out this teaching of Jesus? Christians are certainly going to support charities that help the poor, but how can that be done “in private”? If your name appears on a list of donors, are you violating Jesus’s ideal in Matthew 6:2-4? What if you take a tax credit for charitable giving? Jesus is focused on the internal motivations for giving: how should the Christian evaluate their motive for giving?