Sermon on the Mount: Alms before God

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.
Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.
(Matthew 6:1-4)

I probably shouldn’t recount this, but it’s unavoidable, given the subject. Back in my Protestant days, I visited a so-called Prosperity Gospel church in Texas. After opening with prayers to Almighty God for increased wealth, dividends, unexpected checks in the mail, raises, promotions, etc, they paraded all those who had given a monthly tithe in front of the congregation. I went in a small room in the front and got “saved” — probably for the third or fourth time at that point. Then we left and went to Starbucks.

Indeed, the Lord’s injunction about public displays of almsgiving is a little more than a proscription from parading our generosity in front of others, or making sure that any philanthropy that we may give is heralded around the globe. It’s also a personal command — “let not thy left know what thy right hand doeth.” The Blessed Theophylact writes, “Using hyperbole of language, the Lord said, ‘If it is possible, do not even be aware yourself that you are giving alms.’ Or, in another sense as well, the left hand represents vainglory and the right hand, almsgiving. Let not your vainglory be aware of your almsgiving.”

The key is avoiding pride.

But the real question about alms is this: How much? The standard reply is, one-tenth. (“OK tithers, you can now stand up and parade yourselves in front of the congregation!”) Not so, if you intend on capturing the Kingdom in your lifetime.

In the story of the Rich Young Man in Matthew, Christ essentially tells His followers, if you want to follow Me, you’re going to have to rid yourselves of your wealth.

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me. (Matthew 19:21)

The Blessed Theophylact explains: “If you would be perfect, that is, be My disciple and a Christian, go and sell all that you have, and give everything all at once, keeping nothing back with which to give alms continuously. For He did not say, ‘give repeatedly to the poor,’ but ‘give’ once and for all and be stripped of your wealth.”

In the western world, I do not think we can have this conversation without mentioning wealth, which is a taboo subject to many. This simply states to me that we cannot be truly pious until we closely follow Jesus, and to that means to give up our worldly possessions. But at least if we can’t do that, we must avail our wealth to the poor. Thank the Lord that we Orthodox have the monastic tradition in which to emulate. A few saints come to mind — St. Nicholas, who left coins in the shoes of the poor, and St. John the Merciful, who distributed the wealth of the church to the poor in Alexandria.

So in the end, is it a hypocrisy to celebrate these saints who gave alms — obviously, in the end, before men? I would argue that it is not, because their stories lived on to serve as examples to us. Most of us, however, will have ample opportunities throughout life to give generously and anonymously, and, perhaps, most importantly, continuously.


About Pete Mladineo

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