Serving Those in Need: You can’t read the Bible and miss God’s heart for the poor. It’s no surprise then that the way of Jesus would include the responsibility to give to and serve those in need. However, Jesus warns his disciples that there’s a way of doing good works, even religious works, which is spiritually dangerous for those who are trying to help. How can we meet needs with both wisdom and generosity without falling into this trap? Listen here. Recorded on August 21, 2022, on Matthew 6:1-4, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus, which means that all year, we’ll basically be answering the question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” For the past two months, we’ve been working through a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount in a sermon series called, The Unexpected Way. And we’ve said that the teaching of Jesus leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic, but it’s a different way from the other philosophies or religions of the world. It’s counterintuitive, it sometimes seems upside-down. It’s the unexpected way. For the past few weeks, we’ve considered a number of examples of Jesus for how the moral law goes way deeper than what it allows or prohibits. It goes all the way down to the heart level and has underlying principles for how God intends for us to live. And it’s been hard teaching! This is serious stuff. But it’s so good. In each case, we saw both a beautiful vision for the type of people and society that we would enjoy if we actually lived like this, but also our desperate need for God because of how often we fail to live like this. Today, and for the next few weeks, Jesus turns the focus from morality and what it truly means to do right and wrong to religion or religious practice. Today, we’ll consider the giving of alms (charity) or more simply, serving those in need. Almost every culture and religion says this is a good idea, and it is! But Jesus gives us some unique insight into how this can become a trap for us if we aren’t careful. In fact, there’s a way to be religious without it having anything to do with God. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Matthew 6:1. We’ll read through this and unpack it together.
Matthew 6:1-4 (NIV), “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. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
So again, for the past month or so, we’ve seen again and again that being righteous or being a good person is much harder than it first seems. And this is because God wants us to follow his way whole-heartedly, with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It turns out this is true for not only the way we treat other people, as we saw in our commitment to value/love them, to be faithful in marriage to them, to speak the truth to them, even to love our enemies — but also in the way we worship/serve God. This is really what Matthew chapter 6 is all about. Look back at v.1.
Matthew 6:1 (NIV), “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.” Let’s pause here. So this verse is really the thesis statement for the next three weeks. Jesus gives us this statement and then gives three main examples of what he’s talking about in serving/giving to those in need, praying, and fasting. Now, these three activities are not exclusive to Christianity. In fact, I’d say they are some of the most universal practices of religion. For example, alms for the poor, prayer, and fasting are three of the five pillars of Islam. So in addressing these three things, Jesus isn’t teaching his disciples/followers to do something new. However, what’s unexpected is that he is teaching his disciples to do these common religious practices in a different way. And it’s worth noting that he starts this section of his teaching with a warning: Be careful, beware, watch out. Be careful to what? “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” But what is Jesus talking about here? We’ve just spent the last 6 weeks thinking about how to be salt and light in the world, how to be righteous, and how to think about and speak to and treat other people. And now we’re not supposed to do those things in front of people?? That can’t be what Jesus means here, and I don’t think it is because of those five words at the end of the saying, “…to be seen by them.” Jesus is getting at something that we must not miss. There are many inward reasons why you might outwardly obey God or do religious works such as serving or giving to the poor or those in need. In other words, there are different motivations for those works. Here, Jesus warns us about one, which is the motive to be seen by other people. Now, why would we want others to see when we do what is right? In a positive way, we can do what is right as an example for others to follow. Parents know that they have to set a positive example for their kids. Leaders know they have to set a positive example for those who they influence. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1Co 11:1). So what’s the problem? The problem is that it is uniquely tempting for us to want to be seen as a good or righteous person, especially in a religious sense, to be seen as a man or woman of God. Why? Because we all want to get the attention or respect of others. We all probably would like to add to our respectability or to increase our reputation or status in some way. But Jesus is warning us that if our motives are off, then our religious actions will do nothing in relation to God. “…you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” As I said, Jesus gives three examples of this with the first starting in v. 2.
Matthew 6:2 (NIV), “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.” So, I’m not sure we mark a large donation to a person in need or to a charity/nonprofit with trumpets, but the point is easy to understand. People who give large amounts of money still receive a lot of attention for their charitable/philanthropic work. You might get your name on something or have a fund named after you. There might be a ribbon cutting or a photo op with the press. Jesus says that those who announce their charitable works supposedly done to honor God are hypocrites. Why? Because their actions are supposed to be an act of worship, of giving to or serving the poor because God values the poor. But instead, the trumpets, the announcement, getting the credit for your work, even though it’s a good work, means you get the worship. That’s the underlying word used for “honor” when Jesus says the hypocrites do these things to be honored by others. They are looking for the praise, they are looking for the glory. They want the credit. In Jesus’ day, gifts for the poor were either given in the temple in Jerusalem, or in the synagogue, which was like a local church congregation, or to someone begging in the street. But either way, these were public places. Other people would’ve been there, too. Ironically, a synagogue, like the temple, was supposed to be a place to worship God. But good works, even religious works done in a church, do not mean that God is actually the one being worshipped. I say this with much fear and trembling as a preacher. The songs we sing, the prayers we pray, and the sermons we preach, just like giving to the needy, may be done for us, not for God. But if we do these things in order to be honored or praised or that we might get the glory, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, [you] have received [your] reward in full.” You got what you were hoping to get. The transaction is done, and God wasn’t even involved. Let’s finish this passage with v.3.
Matthew 6:3–4 (NIV), “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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Twice in this passage, in v.2 and v.3, Jesus doesn’t say if you give to the needy, but when. It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t think it was necessary to teach that we should give to the poor and those in need. And I think the reason is that this was such a clear teaching of the OT. There are something like 2,500 verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. You can’t read the Bible and miss God’s heart for the poor. There were OT laws protecting the poor from being taken advantage of. There were the gleaning laws that made provision for poor people to be able to collect the leftovers from the harvest so that they could eat. There were provisions in the OT laws around worship so that all people could worship the Lord, not just the wealthy people who could afford costly sacrifices and offerings. There were commandments as well as proverbs and instructions for how God wanted his people to treat those in need. God was clear that he wanted his people to be openhanded to the poor and those in need. It wasn’t morally good to be poor and bad to be wealthy. But it was an opportunity for God’s people to reflect God’s heart for all people, and especially toward those who were the most vulnerable in society, which is often those who do not have very many material resources. So this isn’t something you need to pray about. This isn’t something you need to wonder if God has gifted you or has called you to do this. The answer is yes. God wants us still to be openhanded to those in need. All of us. As we say about our financial gifts and offerings here, it’s not so much about the dollar amount or the percentage that we are able to give. It’s more about the heart behind the gift. Of course, just as I said last week about the principle of non-retaliation, it takes a great deal of wisdom to apply this teaching in a way that is truly helpful for people in need. There are ways to help people and actually harm them in the process, or at least set them up for failure down the road. So we need to be humble and open to instruction and grow in our wisdom in this area. But that’s what the Christian life is all about. Learning, growing, and living in a way that pleases God. So not it, but when. 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.” Some people read this or hear this and think, how is that even possible, Jesus? It’s not! Jesus is being funny here or at least being memorable because he’s a great teacher. He’s using this absurd image to make a point. If we aren’t even supposed to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, how could it be right to announce with great fanfare and trumpets to other people what we are doing? Of course, it wouldn’t be right. But then, Jesus emphasizes a point that we shouldn’t miss. He says, “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” So if we do what is right, if we serve or give to those in need, and we refuse to fall into the trap of using it as an opportunity to get the glory/honor/praise of other people, we can be assured of something much, much better: that God knows what we did. God not only knows what we did but he understands why we did it, and it becomes not a trap to fall into but a beautiful offering/sacrifice of praise to him, as good and as right and as honoring as the best hymn you could sing or the most eloquent prayer you could pray or the most compelling sermon you could preach. Now, it’s true that good deeds done for the wrong reasons, to be seen by others, for example, might still be good for the world. Hungry people might still be fed. Naked people might still be clothed. Homeless people might still find shelter. But good deeds done for the wrong reasons are deadly for you. Why? Because you might look like you’re a good person and you might feel like a good person (though often we feel as though we are not simply a good person but a better person compared to most others), but in reality, you haven’t been serving God, and you haven’t even been serving your neighbor in need, you’ve actually been serving yourself all along. You may be expecting God’s approval and blessing, but Jesus says you won’t get anything beyond what you’ve already got. There was an old episode of the Simpsons where Homer buys his wife, Marge, a birthday present. He buys her a bowling ball, and when she opens it, she’s upset because he’s the bowler, not her. Turns out he knew that which is why he had his name etched in the ball, not hers. It’s a funny example of a serious thing. If we serve ourselves but think we are serving God, we may think we are disciples of Jesus when we are only using Jesus as a means to another end.
So what do we do with this teaching? How do we heed this warning today? I’ll give you three thoughts in closing. First, maybe you haven’t done much in the way of serving or giving to the poor. Maybe you never saw this as you were growing up or maybe you were taught that people basically get what they deserve in life, so the poor are getting what they deserve. If that’s the case, then hear Jesus say, “When you give to those in need…” When you give. You don’t have to start big. Start small and work your way up from there. Not one of us will solve every problem or meet every need in our community on our own. None of us have the resources for that. But if you haven’t been giving or serving, then the first step would be to start. Second, maybe you have been practicing your righteousness, as Jesus says, in this way. Maybe you have been caring for the poor. Good! Make sure you heed the warning that Jesus gives. There’s a way to do good things, even religious things, without involving God and as a means to another end. We don’t have to obsess over this, but from time to time, it’s a good thing to ask the Lord in prayer if there is anything offensive in even the good things we are doing. The Holy Spirit will never condemn you, but he will certainly convict you of sin in a way that should lead to regular repentance and forgiveness. Maybe you have been doing the right things for the wrong reasons, but “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1Jn 1:9). Third, and finally, serving those in need is never simple. It’s always complicated. There are usually many things going on in someone’s life, not just one thing that if it were fixed all their problems would go away — especially if they are going through a crisis. Some of the needs are material needs, such as the need for food, water, clothing, and shelter. But there are other needs as well. The need for information or education, for a job or job training, for legal counsel or pastoral counsel, and more. Some needs relate more to individual responsibility (what the person needs to do), while others relate more to institutional or social responsibility (what we the people need to do). Poverty relief and community development work can happen much more quickly than broad social reforms, but Christians should be thinking and praying, and acting on all three levels. But no matter what the other needs might be, almost always, when people are going through hard times, they just need a friend, someone who is willing to sit with them and listen to them and cry with them and pray for them. Be careful, this work is not to be done in order to be seen by others. This work is simply a beautiful reflection of how God has treated us first, in Christ. At the incarnation, he came to us, he sat with us, and he is even called Immanuel, which means God is with us. The Apostle Paul said, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2Co 8:9). Jesus impoverished himself of his glory, honor, and praise, for who? For us. Why? So that we might be saved, so that we might have eternal life in his name, and so that we might gain the inheritance of all the kingdom of heaven. This is true wealth. And this is what we have in Christ. Don’t you see how that changes our hearts and the motives of our hearts toward others in need? The grace of God changes everything. Let’s be people who reflect that grace out into the world around us. Not for our glory, but for his. Not for our benefit but for others.