May 5 – What’s Wrong with False Giving?

When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.—Matt. 6:2

Giving to the poor literally means any act of mercy, but it came to mean more specifically the giving of money or goods to the needy. Jesus did not say “if” but “when” concerning our giving—in other words, He expects us to do so. But just as sympathy for the needy does not help them unless something is actually done toward their need, so giving money provides us no spiritual blessing unless done from the heart.

Those who, like the Pharisees, give to impress others with their piety and generosity will receive no further reward. When we give with this false motive, we receive back only what people can give; we thereby forfeit God’s blessings.

Many times, of course, the pretense people use to draw attention to or make an impression with their giving is not so obvious. They know, especially if they profess to follow Christ, that other Christians will resent ostentatiousness. So they seek to make their giving “accidentally” noticed. But any strategy designed to draw attention is still a basic form of trumpet-blowing hypocrisy, which can appear in various forms. Whenever we make a point of doing our giving publicly to be noticed, rather than doing it privately simply for God’s reward, we behave more like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, not like His children.



What are some of the ways that giving can be done for personal recognition, even within the decorum of outward humility? How does one guard against this need for acknowledgment? What are we forgetting when we’re tempted to crave the credit for every dollar we share with others?[1]


The Practice and Reward of False Giving

When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (6:2)

A hupokritēs (hypocrite) originally was a Greek actor who wore a mask that portrayed in an exaggerated way the role that was being dramatized. For obvious reasons the term came to be used of anyone who pretended to be what he was not.

John Calvin believed that in all virtues the entrance of [hypocrisy] was to be avoided, there being no work so praiseworthy as not to be in many instances corrupted and polluted by it (A Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], pp. 308–9).

One of Satan’s most common and effective ways of undermining the power of the church is through hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, therefore, is a great peril to the church, and it comes in two forms. The first is that of nonbelievers masquerading as Christians. The second is that of true believers who are sinful but pretend to be spiritual. The warning Jesus gives here applies to both groups.

Augustine said, “The love of honor is the deadly bane of true piety. Other vices bring forth evil works but this brings forth good works in an evil way.” Hypocrisy is so dangerous because it is so deceptive. It uses things that are basically good for purposes that are basically evil. “Hypocrisy,” he goes on to say, “is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

Eleēnosunē (alms) literally refers to any act of mercy or pity, but came to be used primarily of giving money, food, or clothing to the poor. It is the term from which we get the English eleemosynary, a synonym for charitable.

Jesus does not introduce this teaching with if but when, indicating it is something He expects us to do. To give alms refers to actual giving, not good intentions or warm feelings of pity that never find practical expression. When done in the right spirit it not only is permissible but obligatory for believers.

God has always delighted in acts of mercy and generosity. “Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you” (Lev. 25:35). When Israelites freed a slave they were told, “You shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut. 15:13–14). God’s people were continually reminded in the Psalms, Proverbs, and prophetic writings to be considerate of and generous to the poor, whether fellow Israelites or Gentile strangers.

Jesus and the disciples had their own money bag from which they gave offerings to the poor (John 13:29). It is obvious, therefore, that it is only giving alms in the wrong spirit that is evil. The scribes and Pharisees gave them primarily to bring honor to themselves, not to serve others or to honor God.

The giving of alms had been carried to absurd extremes by rabbinic tradition. In the Jewish apocryphal books we read such things as, “It is better to give to charity than to lay up gold. For charity will save a man from death; it will expiate any sin” (Tobit 12:8) and, “As water will quench a flaming fire, so charity will atone for sin” (The Wisdom of Sirach 3:30). Consequently, many Jews believed that salvation was much easier for the rich, because they could buy their way into heaven by giving to the poor. The same mechanistic and unbiblical principle is seen in traditional Roman Catholic dogma. Pope Leo the Great declared, “By prayer we seek to appease God, by fasting we extinguish the lust of the flesh, and by alms we redeem our sins.”

But just as a sympathetic feeling for someone in need does not help them unless something is given to meet their need, giving them money provides no spiritual benefit or blessing unless it is given from the heart. In any case, no act of charity or any other good work can atone for sin.

There seems to be no evidence from history or archaeology that a literal trumpet or other instrument was used by Jews to announce their giving. The figure was used by Jesus to describe the attention in the synagogues and in the streets that many wealthy hypocrites, not just scribes and Pharisees, purposely attracted to themselves when they presented their gifts.

The reward they wanted was recognition and praise, to be honored by men, and that became their reward in full. They have their reward was a form of a technical expression used at the completion of a commercial transaction, and carried the idea of something being paid for in full and receipted. Nothing more was owed or would be paid. Those who give for the purpose of impressing others with their generosity and spirituality will receive no other reward, especially from God. The Lord owes them nothing. When we give to please men, our only reward will be that which men can give. Seeking men’s blessings forfeits God’s.

There are many more subtle trumpets people can use to call attention to their good works. When they make a point of doing publicly what they could easily do privately, they behave like the hypocrites, not like God’s children.

A man came into my office one Sunday and told me it was his first time to worship with us and that he intended to make our church his church home. He then handed me a generous check, with the promise that I would receive one just like it every week. I told him I did not want to receive his checks personally and suggested that he should give anonymously as the rest of the church family did. If he had continued to give a large amount every Sunday, there was no good reason for him to have announced his generosity to me or to anyone else. How much better for him simply to have put the check in the offering during a service.

Sometimes, of course, the pretense does not show. Knowing that it is wrong to give ostentatiously and that fellow Christians are likely to resent it, we sometimes try to make our good works “accidentally” noticed. But even if we only want people to notice, and do nothing to attract their attention, our heart motive is to be honored by men. The real trumpet blowing, the basic hypocrisy, is always on the inside, and that is where God judges. Hypocritical righteousness, just as true righteousness, begins in the heart.

Unfortunately, many Christian organizations use un-Christian methods to motivate support of their ministries. When flamed certificates, published names of generous supporters, and other such recognitions are offered to stimulate giving, hypocrisy is promoted in the name of Christ. It is just as wrong to appeal to wrong motives as to have wrong motives. “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come,” Jesus said; “but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matt. 18:7).[2]

6:2 It seems incredible that hypocrites would noisily attract attention to themselves as they gave offerings in the synagogues or handouts to beggars in the streets. The Lord dismissed their conduct with the terse comment: “They have their reward” (i.e., their only reward is the reputation they gain while on earth).[3] 2 The “you” is singular (see comments at 5:28). While some in Jesus’ day believed almsgiving earned merit (e.g., Tob 12:8–9; Sir 3:30; 29:11–12), ostentation, not merit theology, is the point here. Jesus assumes his disciples will give alms: “When you give to the needy,” he says, not “If you give to the needy” (cf. 10:42; 25:35–45; 2 Co 9:6–7; Php 4:18–19; 1 Ti 6:18–19; Jas 1:27). Rabbinic writers also warn against ostentation in almsgiving (cf. Str-B, 1:391ff.). The frequency of the warnings attests the commonness of the practice.

The reference to trumpet announcements is difficult. Many commentators say this refers to “the practice of blowing trumpets at the time of collecting alms in the Temple for the relief of some signal need” (Hill, following Bonnard), but no Jewish sources confirm this, and the idea seems to stem only from early Christian expositors who assumed its correctness. Likewise there is no evidence (contra Calvin) that the almsgivers themselves really blew trumpets on their way to the temple. Alfred Edersheim (The Temple: Its Ministry and services [London: Religious Tract Society, n.d.], 26), followed by Jeremias (Jerusalem, 170 n. 73), suggests this is a reference to horn-shaped collection boxes used at the temple to discourage pilfering. Lachs (“Textual Observations,” 103–5), without mentioning Edersheim, has followed up on that idea by postulating a mistranslation from an underlying Semitic source. But unless the trumpet is a metaphorical caricature (like “tooting your own horn”)—a poorly attested suggestion—the solution of A. Buchler (“St. Matthew 6:1–6 and Other Allied Passages,” JTS 10 [1909]: 266–70) still seems best: public fasts were proclaimed by the sounding of trumpets. At such times, prayers for rain were recited in the streets (cf. v. 5), and it was widely thought that almsgiving ensured the efficacy of the fasts and prayers (e.g., b. Sanh. 35a; m. Taʿan 2:6; Lev. Rab. 34:14). But these occasions afforded golden opportunities for ostentation.

Lachs objects that this interpretation makes the givers pompous but not hypocrites. In older Greek a hypokritēs (“hypocrite,” GK 5695) was an actor, but by the first century the term came to be used for those who play roles and see the world as their stage. What Lachs overlooks is that there are different kinds of hypocrisy. In one the hypocrite feigns goodness but is actually evil and knows he is being deceptive (e.g., 22:15–18). In another the hypocrite is carried away by his own acting and deceives himself. Such pious hypocrites (as in 7:1–5), though unaware of their own deceit, do not fool most onlookers, and this may be the meaning here. A third kind of hypocrite deceives himself into thinking he is acting for the best interests of God and man and also deceives onlookers. The needy are unlikely to complain when they receive large gifts, and their gratitude may flatter and thus bolster the giver’s self-delusion (cf. D. A. Spieler, “Hypocrisy: An Exploration of a Third Type,” AUSS 13 [1975]: 273–79). Perhaps it is best to identify the hypocrisy in v. 2 with this third type.

The Pharisees’ great weakness was that they loved human praise more than God’s praise (cf. Jn 5:44; 12:43). Those who give out of this attitude receive their reward in full (such is the force of apechousin [GK 600]; cf. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 110–11). They win human plaudits, and that is all they get (cf. Ps 17:14).[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 134). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 354–356). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 197–198). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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