“Don’t Do Your Alms to be Seen of Men”
by Warren E. Berkley
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). The story is told of an old Pharisee tending to business in his Jerusalem shop. A public announcement was made (with trumpets?) about a benevolent need. The ostentatious Pharisee tripped all over himself, pushed customers aside and shouted: “Excuse me, I must close the shop now, to take my contribution to the needy ones … Excuse me … Out of my way please …” On his way out, he picked up a huge, heavy sack, but while running down the street, he fell, the sack opened … and all the rocks fell out!
The Old Testament instructed the Jewish people in the duty of benevolence, and promised a blessing on those who considered the poor (Psalm 41:1). The scribes and Pharisees took this duty of charity and turned it into a performance, designed to elicit the applause of men. In their infamous tampering with the ways of God, they kept the duty but changed the motive! Their concern was not to glorify God and help the needy. They wanted “to be seen” by men; to be praised, exalted, and become well-known. A simple walk of obedience to God had been replaced by a public relations style of grandiose self-righteousness; in alms-giving, prayer and fasting. But …
For every basic defect in the hearts of these vainglorious men, the Lord had something incisive to say. In our text, He isn’t minimizing true benevolence. In fact, His main focus is not “charitable deeds” or “alms.” He deals with the immature motive, i.e. “to be seen …” and in convicting them He challenges and warns us: we must not take a good work and turn it into a performance designed to elicit applause for ourselves! Throughout this context, He wants His disciples to learn to do the right things for the right reasons. As the true disciple engages in either benevolence, prayer, or fasting, there must be purity in motive (Matthew 6:1–15). Our charitable deeds must be generated by obligation toward God, and a merciful response to another’s need; not an attempt for recognition. And when that is our intent (gaining recognition), we may gain that reward but miss the higher reward of God’s approval and pleasure (see verse 2).
“Grand-standing” is a term coined in the political arena, but may describe what a few “preachin’ brethren” have been guilty of. I know we must proceed with caution when we speak of another’s motivation, but sometimes there seems to be evidence that the commotion and prating of some preachers is vain and ambitious in cause. Jesus calls for restraint (“take heed”) and this should prompt self examination in all of us. While some of these “grand-standers” may preach the truth and expose error, they will answer for their attitude and motive (see Phil. 1:15, 16; 1 Corinthians 4:15). Proclaiming or writing gospel truth was never meant to be a theatrical performance. “Beware of doing good deeds conspicuously to catch men’s eyes,” (Phillips).
I think there is one final by-product of learning what Jesus taught in this text. Have you ever heard someone complain, “The people in this church are just not doing anything!” Perhaps. And yet, if benevolence and good works are being practiced in keeping with the Lord’s teaching, a great many genuine acts of love and benevolence will take place that you never see or hear about! (Note, “in secret,” and “go into your room,” verses 4, 6).
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.”
And all of this reminds me of the man who called a press conference to announce his anonymous gift to a charitable foundation! Oops …
Berkley, W. E. (1994). “Don’t Do Your Alms to be Seen of Men.” (D. Truex, Ed.)Christianity Magazine, 11(4), 18.