I had the privilege of preaching on Sunday in our continuing series on the sermon on the mount. In chapter 6 Jesus shifts His teaching from a series of “whats” (principles to live by) to a series of “whys”. Knowing how much we think about money Jesus begins His instruction with some pointed comments on giving. Jesus says that we should give so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. The simple interpretation of this is that we aren’t supposed to be keeping track of our giving to the poor. This got me thinking about the different motivations for giving.
The most basic motive for giving is duty. All through scripture we are instructed to give to the poor. Unfortunately, if duty is our motivation then the left hand knows what the right hand is doing because we need to keep track. The result for the poor is not good. We see them, but look down on them. They create an obligation for us that we might like to avoid. The reason we’d like to avoid them is that the money is coming from us. It is ours and we are not particularly good at sharing. I think the fundamental motive for this kind of giving is fear. If our fear is of God, then we don’t understand God. If we fear either the poor or the community around them we are going to have great difficulty beginning to think about really helping. There is no reward for this kind of giving. God certainly won’t reward us, the community won’t applaud, the poor won’t thank us, and we shouldn’t feel good about doing what is expected.
The motive that Jesus addressed as a negative example was that of giving for merit. There were two components to this motive. Jewish religious practice had established that giving to the poor could result in forgiveness of sins. Add to this the praise of men, and highly visible and significant gifts became the norm. This motivation is the example Jesus uses of the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. The poor become invisible because they aren’t the point. The point is us and the gift is coming from us. We are good and we are experiencing God’s favor. Our wealth proves that we are favored by God. At least that’s what we think. We are stuck in a prideful state of mind. Jesus tells us that we had better enjoy the applause of the crowd, as this is the only reward we will receive.
I think Jesus is attempting to move us toward a motive we don’t discuss much. This motive is giving to satisfy a compulsion. At first thought we might regard this as a negative motivation as compulsion can imply that we are being forced to do something. That is the first definition, but the second definition is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way. This is the motivation that drove Jesus to the cross and compels us to meet the needs of the poor around us. Since we are compelled we keep no track of the amount we give. This doesn’t mean being irresponsible with the money God has given us to manage. It does mean that we don’t keep a running tally to determine if we have anything left to give to the next need we encounter. We see the poor person and recognize them as a person made in the image of God just like us. Their circumstances may be different, but we all stand before God as sinners saved by grace. When we see them the love of God within us responds with compassion and seeks what is best for them. Real help for the poor flows from this motivation. Whatever we give comes from God and is motivated by His love for us. There is no thought of reward, even though Jesus promises an eternal one. We have already received our reward. Jesus’ gift to us has provided us with eternal life. What could be better than that?