In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises expectations to new heights across a wide swath of issues. The list includes murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, loving our enemies, prayer, fasting, greed, worrying, judging, and giving to the needy.
1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
As the words of Jesus wash over me this morning, I find myself sitting in quiet contemplation. The underlying assumption is that we are seeking to serve the needy in our communities. Everything in the short passage above assumes that we are actually reaching out to those in need. The point of the discourse is all about motivation, we’ll get to that point shortly, but the foundation is a people who know they are supposed to serve those in need.
I’m not sure our current culture identifies with this assertion. I know that sounds critical, but it seems our churches are filled with people that carve out an hour or so on Sundays but are so busy that they do not seek to serve the needy. We just don’t have time! Really?
Our Jewish ancestors knew they had a responsibility to the poor in the land. In a predominantly agrarian society, many were left out. Far before the world of finance and eBay, if you couldn’t make a living on the farm, you would quickly become poor. The poor were easy to identify. They lived at the mercy of those who had the margin to supply their needs.
Meeting someone’s immediate need is significant and essential. Jesus casts a light on the method, that is, our motivation behind such activity. The current study on serving the least, the lost, and the lonely is worthless if it is a study to draw attention to myself. While it is the last thing on my mind, the warning is vivid. Do not serve the poor to attract favorable attention.
You and I know this is the main point, but what happens if we get lost in the theme of keeping things secret?
3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Matthew 6:3-4
Is it possible to become so intent on secrecy that we don’t talk about serving others? Have we reversed the reversal to the point that we don’t do anything? Here’s what I mean: do we stop talking about helping the needy because we’re afraid to be criticized for being self-righteous? When we stop talking about the poor, guess what happens: the poor stop being served!
When we misread Jesus’ words to the point that we stop serving others “just in case” we’re viewed as being self-serving, we have wandered into a dangerous place. Jesus never intimated that we should not help the needy. Somehow we need to announce plans to serve without becoming pious.
Father Gregory Boyle helps span the gap. If you listen to any of his talks or read his books, you will walk away with this foundational principle that defuses any hint of self-righteousness:
The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. The compassion of Jesus is the one we seek. The one that can stand in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than stand judgment at how they carry it. 1
The Secret Sauce
The secret to secrecy then is to see those in need as our brothers and sisters. They are equal heirs to the throne. Equal. We are not bowing down to serve them; we are standing beside them out of love and compassion, not for any spotlight. We know there will come a day when success will not be measured in dollars or possessions. That day came when Jesus took the nails and bore our sins on the cross. His worthy sacrifice tore the veil from top to bottom and put an end to the old regime. The resurrection of Christ means that all have equal access. His life demonstrated over and over again that all lives matter to God.
By all means, serve the needy every day; serve others with a glad heart and with great joy. Lord help us to see it isn’t “us” versus “them.” Help us to see people with your eyes.
I’ll never forget the woman that spoke to me after we served breakfast for the Salvation Army. As we were getting ready to leave, she looked at me and said, “thanks for breakfast, and thanks for your smile.” That was worth more than anything in my bank account. It was a joy to hang out with the gathering for breakfast. Everyone there was welcoming and grateful. Why wouldn’t others want to join in the joy? Don’t be afraid to let others in on the secret.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good;Psalm 100
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
Lord Jesus, may we learn to serve our brothers and sisters with joy. May our kindness become contagious, so others will join until there is no one among us in need.
1 Father Gregory Boyle expresses this in many forms. I found this on YouTube today: [video]