“When you give … do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). This saying epitomizes the mystery of Jesus’ sayings. What does Jesus really mean by this saying?
This oft-quoted saying of Jesus comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). This long sermon is full of parables, proverbs, rebukes, and commands. The Sermon on the Mount, in many ways, functions as the center of Jesus’ practical teaching—his teachings about how Christians should live. Thus, when we attempt to understand any one part of it, we must ask ourselves: What does Jesus want to teach us, practically?
Jesus opens this particular section of the sermon with a caution:
“Beware of practicing 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” (Matthew 6:1 ESV).
There are some people who only do good when it can be seen. Their goal is to be recognized for their generosity. We need look no further than the monopolizers, Rockefeller and Carnegie, to see an illustration of this type of giving. Rockefeller and Carnegie were even in a competition for who could give the most—who could out philanthropize the other one. But their efforts were not merely about giving; it was about empire building. They were trying to create lasting legacies in their own names, so that they could live forever in the annuals of history. And it worked.
Does Jesus’ rebuke mean that the philanthropic labors of Rockefeller and Carnegie were in vain? Certainly not. There are many great things in our world that only happened because of the generosity of Rockefeller and Carnegie—whole non-profits and institutions owe their start to Rockefeller and Carnegie.
But where is the reward for efforts done for the sake of recognition? They are left right here on earth, where they occur. Jesus makes clear that those who seek recognition get their reward here, not in heaven. Their reward is the praise of other people. Jesus elaborates on this, saying:
“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” (Matthew 6:2 ESV).
Thinking of local Jewish leaders of the Pharisee and Sadducee party, Jesus uses the analogy of someone sounding a trumpet before giving to the impoverished. He could be alluding to some regular practice at the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus could be recognizing that most people made a very big deal about their giving. Without recognition, the wealthy likely thought they would lose some (perhaps even all) of the benefit. Jesus calls this type of behavior hypocritical. But why is it hypocritical? Answer: power.
Those who give out of a desire to be recognized are really seeking popularity. And popularity is a tool of power. If people believe you are generous, they are likely to be more trusting. And if they trust you, they will do business with you. For many wealthy people, this is why they give—respect of peers and their local community. Most often they give out of guilt (expectations) or to seek respect (power). And neither reason for giving aligns with God’s priorities.
Furthermore, giving is often a method of expressing power. If I supply for another person’s needs, especially when being recognized for doing so, the person I give to will feel indebted to me. At the very least, they will be forced to compromise some dignity in accepting my charity. Thus, for Jesus, the setting of giving was critical. He understood that all these things could be involved in the giving process.
This does not mean that giving done in vain is useless to God or his work. It can still be used for great good. But there is a better way. In this regard, Jesus says:
“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” (Matthew 6:3–4 ESV).
For Jesus, it’s all about intent. This is his concern. But does this mean that we should never give publicly? Does it mean that we should never tell the stories of those who give? What about the stories of those who receive? To answer these questions, the next section of Jesus’ sermon is enlightening.
Jesus’ view of prayer, which is explained in the next section of the sermon, is very similar to his view of giving (Matthew 6:5–8). He explains that prayer should be done in secret. Yet when it comes to prayer, we know that Jesus does not intend for us to merely pray in secret or to merely pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:6, 9–13). We know this because Jesus himself prayed publicly (e.g., John 11:41–42). And we practice public prayer, just as it has been practiced for thousands of years (and is reflected even in the book of Psalms).
When we read Jesus’ thoughts on prayer, we know that he is providing us with a model, a modus operandi. He is telling us that the majority of our prayers should be private—that we should seek an intimate relationship with God the Father. He is also telling us to be careful why we pray—to watch our intentions.
The same is true of Jesus’ view on giving. Intent is the guiding principle (see 2 Corinthians 9:6–7; Micah 6:8). We must ask: Why are we giving? When we expose our giving to others, why do we do so? When we tell the stories of the impoverished being empowered, why do we do so? Are we ensuring that each step is done with dignity, honesty, and for the right reasons? Are we seeking God’s glory or our own?
Our guiding principle should be giving privately. While we will at times make exceptions to the principle, we must only make exceptions for the sake of God’s glory and ministry. It must have a larger purpose and intent in mind. And we must continue to glorify God whenever recognition comes.
We must also trust God with our giving. Rather than contemplating the loss of funds, we must trust God with our donation to his ministry. We must watch the intent of our heart and make sure we are in a place of generosity. We must give out of a desire to do good for others and to glorify God in the process. This is Jesus’ way.