Matthew 6:1. Beware of practicing your charity before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogs and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.
3. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4. So that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
SO far the Lord Christ has been denouncing the false teachings and interpretations of Scripture which had led people to refrain from sinning with their fists while their hearts remained completely impure within, and He has been demonstrating and emphasizing the true interpretation of the Scriptures and the Law. Now He goes on from their teaching to denounce their life as well. He attacks their good works, and He refuses to concede that they have anything good either in their teaching or in their works. This in spite of the fact that, as holy people, they taught the Scriptures every day, that they did good works, and that they had a reputation as the finest kernel of the whole Jewish people and the holiest people on earth. The whole world had to look to them as the mirror and pattern according to which they should live, just as the only place to look for true doctrine and life until now has been among our clergy, the priests and monks. Yet now they are being rebuked by the Gospel; and everyone sees that neither their teaching nor their life has been right, but that they have been misleading and deceiving both themselves and the people.
Now, a sermon is really a vexing thing if it comes into the world in order to deprive these holy people of their claims to everything right and good, and it earns the opposition and the intolerance of the world. But this does not embarrass the Holy Spirit. He goes right ahead with His denunciation of both teaching and life, in keeping with His office, wherever He may come. Both need to be denounced. It is true that where teaching is not right, there it is impossible for life to be right and good either, since life must let itself be controlled and directed by teaching. Whatever is done and accomplished on such a basis will be only a bypath and a detour, aggravated by the fact that the teaching persists in the impression and the notion that it is a true and divine teaching that points and leads to heaven, and that the works keep the title “good works,” though they pay attention only to the action of the hands. Thus they imagined that their life was satisfactory and good if only they did the works, contributed alms generously, fasted, and prayed, regardless of how their heart stood in relation to God. In addition, they were polluted by the filthy habit of doing it all only to have the people see them and give them honor and glory for it. That is why Christ here rebukes and completely rejects it.
First of all, He denounces their alms-giving, which is still the best among all the outward works. It simply means helping the poor and needy; and it includes not just giving a piece of bread to a beggar at the door, but all sorts of kind deeds and good works done to a neighbor. The little word “alms” is derived from the Greek word ἐλεημοσύνη, which means mercy, just as we also generally speak of “works of mercy.” Therefore the Scriptures give these works higher praise than they do to all the others, even to the works in relation to God, like sacrificing, praying, and the like. Thus Christ Himself says (Matt. 9:13) on the basis of the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6): “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” So also in Isaiah 58 He rebukes them and says they caused Him anguish because they fasted and whipped their bodies, and He demands these works instead: they should do good to the poor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. But how is it, then, that here He is denouncing the Pharisees for doing precisely these good works?
Answer: He is not denouncing the work itself, but their purpose and aim in doing it. In itself the work would be good; but they ruined it by smearing their filth all over it, because by it they were seeking only their own glory and honor before the people and were not doing it for the sake of God or their neighbor. Therefore He pronounces a short and severe judgment, that all such alms, regardless of how great or abundant or expensive they may be, are useless and valueless.
It is incredible how common this blasphemy and vice is in the world, especially among the best people, and how few people there really are who do good works without seeking the honor or favor of the world this way. Take all the alms ever given in the whole papacy, and just count how many you will be able to find that were not given with this intention in mind. Alas, the world will never learn what real almsgiving is. That is how we are all inclined. If the praise of the people, their honor, gratitude, and favor were not forthcoming, every one of us would soon pull his hand back. What if the pope had said to the princes and the donors, “Gentlemen, I will not give you a heller for all your foundations and alms”? How much do you imagine they would have donated for churches and other institutions then? Not a stone would have been hauled or laid in place. We can see that now. We are teaching correctly and urging these works on the basis that they should be given for God’s sake, out of a pure and simple heart, and not for the sake of increasing our own honor or merit. Therefore nobody wants to give a heller nowadays. In former days, when they had praise and honor for it, the alms, endowments, and wills came down like snow. Of course, their notion that they were earning heaven by this did have a great deal to do with it. Still this was not the main reason; but as Christ says here, the main reason was the fact that this was something great and praiseworthy in the eyes of the people. Otherwise they would have paid no attention to it, and they would not have done it for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven.
As we have said, this is evident from the fact that no one responds now when the people are seriously appealed to and urged to do good works and when such works are described as most precious, as something highly pleasing to God and to all the angels in heaven, as something that will receive a hundredfold reward. What is missing in our appeal? Simply this, that such works are no longer supposed to win praise and honor, gratitude and reward from the world. Because the head has been cut off, the body refuses to follow any longer. But if the head were to come back to life, then everything would soon be back in full swing, the way it used to be. This is the way it used to be. If a rich prince gave a great sum of money to a monastery, everybody would come and say, “Thank God!” and then promise to earn it by means of their prayers and services. This had to be proclaimed from all the pulpits, and the whole world had to say, “Oh, what a wonderful work!” That was the situation everywhere throughout out the papacy, even though there may have been a few whom God found to be upright. You see, this is a sure sign that this sort of thing was being done only as a means of earning gratitude, honor, and praise.
Additional evidence to support this comes from the fact that such saints quickly become angry and take their gifts back if they feel that the recipients are ungrateful or contemptuous toward them. If this had not been their motivation in giving, such a response would not cause them to become angry or to stop. They would keep right on and say: “This was not my reason for beginning, and it will not be my reason for stopping. I intend to go on doing it for the honor and pleasure of God, even though no man may give me a good word for it.” But you may come shuffling along this way: “I have done so much for him, and he has forgotten it already. People are so ungrateful!” Or you may say: “I would be happy to take my heart out of my body and give it to him. But since I see that this kindness would be wasted on him and that he is such a thankless fellow, so that all my toil and trouble would be in vain, he can go to hell before I give him a heller or a crust of bread.” Look, there the scoundrel is already peeking out! By your very words you betray your real motivation for doing it, namely, to have people worship and celebrate you and honor you as a god. We can see this now in the case of some of our bigwigs.1 They can rage and stir up a fuss if they do not continually hear expressions of gratitude and other things they want to hear. Unless they do, they will even turn against princes and lords and make accusations against everybody.
You see what a shameful distortion of good works this is, and how common a fault it is throughout the world that nobody does anything good without such motivation. The world cannot get rid of this crazy idea, and it cannot endure or overcome ingratitude. This is also where the monks came from. They ran away into the desert because they were so weak that they could not stand the thought of being in the world, helping everyone and doing good, and then of being rewarded for this with nothing but contempt and malice, insults and ingratitude. But what sort of devil is it that tells you to do these works on the ground that by them you will earn the popularity of the world, which is uncertain and can quickly collapse and change, rather than to look for a better motivation, namely, God? For then they can never be lost, and He will richly reward you, both here and hereafter. Therefore it serves you right for being such a scoundrel and having no other purpose than to be worshiped by the people and to make a god of yourself! So He can very easily let the world and the devil take care of you. They will take your divinity away from you and throw it into the filth, which is exactly where it belongs. Since you have the effrontery to seat yourself on God’s throne and to lay claim to the glory that belongs only to Him, it is fitting for Him to cast you down again so that complete disgrace is all the thanks you get in place of your stolen honor. It is really disgraceful, the way the world carries on: it may be pious or it may be wicked, but either way it is worthless. Either it tries openly to be a devil with its wicked works, or it tries to be God Himself with its good works. And both of these are intolerable. Therefore no one can do a truly good work unless he is a Christian. If he does it as a man, then he is not doing it for the glory of God, but for his own glory and advantage. On the other hand, if he claims that it is for the glory of God, that is a lie that smells to high heaven.
For this reason Christ now intends to teach about the right way of giving alms, and He says: “When you give alms, do not have a trumpet sounded or a loud shout raised before you, so that a whole city has to know about it and talk about it. (So it is among us, when a charitable contribution is being made and all the bells have to be rung.) But when you give alms, do it in such a way that your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing.” This is the self-same thing that St. Paul says in Romans 12:8 and elsewhere (2 Cor. 9:7): “He who contributes, let him do it with singleness.” But “contributing with singleness” means that by making the contribution one does not seek his own glory or popularity, gratitude or reward, and is not concerned about whether any human being is grateful or not. But he contributes freely what he wants to contribute, just the way God grants His gifts every day and causes His sun to shine, regardless of the thankful or the unthankful, just as if He did not see anybody. A heart is truly single in its motivation if it neither seeks nor desires nor looks at anything except the will of God and the glory of God.
Such sincere almsgiving is not to be found among worldly people; their contributing is the kind that gives with the right hand and grasps with the left hand. This is what is called “givers, takers,” a phrase the children use to taunt each other, the kind of giving that expects to acquire ten times as much, contributing a drop of water and then getting a cask of wine back. Worldly people make their contributions in order to have a glory that is immensely greater than all the money and property in the world. They want to buy you for a trifle and to hold you as their perpetual prisoner—your body and your life and everything you have—along with God Himself. For that reason Christ says: “When you are giving alms with your right hand, be careful that you do not try to take more with your left hand. Hold it behind your back, and do not let it know anything about what is going on.” Then you may be said to be “contributing with singleness,” not to be taking or to be giving in such a way as to make the other person owe you ten times as much as you gave him, or to make him celebrate and adore you as an idol. That is the way our young squires proceed now. If they have rendered a service to someone with a gulden or two, they imagine that they have bought him and that he is so deeply obligated to them that he has to call all their words and actions golden and dare not say a word to them except what they would like to hear. My friend, if you can sell your trifles for such a price, you are really quite a salesman!
Everyone should therefore know how to protect himself against this vice and should be careful lest he become one of these people. It remains unnoticed by most people; it even manages to deceive those who suppose that they are very pious and full of good works, who thus become twice as wicked as the others. Therefore God hates this vice especially. It is more tolerable to Him if you openly rob your neighbor and do him wrong than if you make this kind of contribution, which shamefully corrupts a good work by letting you make yourself an idol and letting you bind and imprison your neighbor more tightly than anything else could. But that is the way it goes. Where the true doctrine lies helpless and yet everyone lays claim to great piety, the consequence is these good works, which have nothing but a vain pretense and which do twice as much harm as overt wicked works.
But someone may say: “When He says that almsgiving should be secret, what are we to make of this? Will it be prohibited now for anyone to have it announced and reported to the people who are supposed to get and receive it?” The answer is no. For you must see what Christ’s purpose is in speaking. He is looking at the heart and the motivation, to find out whether the purpose of your gift or endowment is to seek your own honor and glory; if so, then it is worthless before God, even though it may be of help to many poor people. But giving alms in secret means that the heart is not ostentatious or desirous of gaining honor and reputation from it, but is moved to contribute freely regardless of whether it makes an impression and gains the praise of the people or whether everyone despises and profanes it. Thus it counts as a gift given in secret and before God alone, even though it may be given publicly before the whole world. For it is concealed by the singleness of a heart that does not ask or worry, but leaves it for God to decide, whether its reward will be gratitude or ingratitude, good or evil. Thus I myself do not see it, though others may. This is how I and others must proceed in our ministerial office. We must not bother ourselves about whether we are pleasing the people or not. In fact, we have to expect to get contempt, ingratitude, persecution, and all sorts of trouble as our reward. If any good work is to endure and to be found acceptable, not like the sham works of the hypocrites, you will have to expect this sort of treatment as a test and a probation.
In short, whoever wants to be a Christian must make up his mind neither to undertake nor to discontinue any good work on the basis of what other people think, but only as a means of serving God through his office or station, his money or goods, or whatever other possessions or abilities he may have, doing what he can to His glory although he may never merit any thanks for it on earth at all. It is impossible for a pious man to be adequately rewarded here even for the very smallest work that he does; even being crowned with gold and receiving an entire kingdom would not be enough. Therefore he should limit his ambition to getting what he needs to eat and drink in exchange for his work, expecting no reward from the world. It is not worthy to repay or reward a good work, or even to recognize and honor a real Christian; even if it knows him, it is not pious enough to thank him. Now, since his work is not undertaken for the world’s sake, it should not be discontinued for its sake either; but it should be commended to God. He will reward it profusely, not in secret but in public, in the presence of the whole world and all the angels.
Where this insight and understanding is absent, there no really good works are possible. Instead, a person becomes impatient, disturbs his own peace, and lets himself be overcome by the shameful ingratitude of the world. Thus this good work is destroyed and disappears, appears, and it becomes clear that he was doing it not out of regard for God but out of regard for the people. For that matter, if I had not known this, I would have given the world its walking papers long ago and let it go to the devil rather than to let it hear a single word from me. But the important thing here is not the world, but our dear Father in heaven. Because of our love for Him and because of His glory and honor we shall preach and do good. The rest of the world hates Him, it shamefully despises and blasphemes Him, and it does everything possible to oppose Him and vex Him. We console ourselves with the fact that He still lives even when the whole world is destroyed; since He has declared and promised that He will duly reward and repay, He will not lie to us. So try it, and you will find that it will not fail you. Let this be a general introduction on what attitude a Christian ought to have in his heart toward almsgiving and all other good works.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:130). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.