Do good and keep quiet about it
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to do good. However, it should not be about being praised. Love for fellow human beings and God should be the supporting motive and result in a giving lifestyle.
For some time now, I have been financially supporting a family in India with their livelihood. When I visited the family in January 2020, I assumed that they thanked me for my support. So I spent the few days with them and waited for their Merci. But nothing happened. At first I was offended, because I wanted them to know who was funding them, among other things. But suddenly I realised that it's actually great if they don't know about my finances. This is exactly what today's sermon is about.
"Be careful! When you do good, do not do it publicly just to be admired. In that case, you must not expect to be rewarded by your Father in heaven. When you give something to someone in need, do not trumpet it as the hypocrites do who brag about their good deeds in the synagogues and on the streets just to attract attention! I assure you: That is the only reward they will ever get in return. When you give to someone, do not tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. Give in silence, and your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you" (Matthew 6:1-4 NLB).
Question your own motives
Jesus Christ is criticising a common practice here. Doing good was the order of the day for the Jews. But they did not do so entirely voluntarily. For acting mercifully towards others was demanded and was a commandment. This commandment is called the Zedekah. The Jews are obliged to give to other people, even though they owe them nothing. This is because, as God's chosen people, they have been entrusted with so much by Him, even though He owes them nothing. Therefore, many donations and charitable things did not happen voluntarily, but because of the tzedekah. The religious leaders at that time, the Pharisees, therefore had to set a good example in this area of religious life as well.
It was not uncommon for these people to want to distribute their good deeds to as many people as possible, as they were considered to be very God-fearing people. Therefore, as soon as they started distributing money or food, some would sound the trumpets. On the one hand, this was a sign to the needy that they could now come, but on the other hand, it always attracted many other onlookers who observed the good deeds of the Pharisees. It would certainly be wrong to lump them all together, but for many the motivation certainly lay in the correct fulfilment of the Zedekah.
The followers of Jesus Christ were also called to do good. "In thesame way, let your good deeds shine before men, so that all may see them and praise your Father in heaven for them" (Matthew 5:16 NLB). Today, followers of Jesus are still called to do good. Through these deeds, God in heaven is pointed to and all glory is given to him. Thus, doing good deeds is part of the life of a Christian. At first glance, these two biblical passages seem to contradict each other. On the one hand, it is not to be spoken of and on the other hand, good deeds are to be done in order to point to God in heaven. This leads to a certain tension. But on closer examination, this tension dissolves. Not only are these two statements in the same sermon of Jesus Christ, but they also address two different things. One is about motives, the other is about followers of Jesus Christ being recognised by their good deeds. Good deeds should be an inseparable part of life, but not in order to be praised through them.
We see an example of a wrong motive for giving in the early church. In Acts 5:1-11 is the story of Hananias and Sapphira. For me, this story remains one of the strangest stories in the entire New Testament. In the early church it was common for church members to sell some of their possessions to help others in the church. This was not a condition for belonging to the church. Even after a sale, everyone was free to donate how much they wanted to the church. Hananias and Sapphira acted as if they had donated all the proceeds to the church. But this was not so, they kept a part for themselves. For this, they were both punished by God with death, because they had not told the truth. They were not primarily concerned with doing good, but wanted to look good in front of everyone and be honoured. Their motive was selfish and not out of love for God and their neighbour.
Driven by love
How can we check why others are being supported? How can the inner motive be checked? What is the orientation of this giving? I am deeply convinced that everything we do should be driven by love! "If I gave everything I own to the poor and even sacrificed my body so that I would be honoured, but had no love, everything would be worthless" (1 Corinthians 13:3 NLB). Love is what matters. All the other motives may not seem so bad at first glance either. But a closer look reveals that they are not really about the neighbour and his suffering, even if the motives do not seem so self-centred.
Many people get involved in a wide variety of things, be it asylum, emergency aid, environmental protection or whatever else there is. They do this in a very exemplary way and contribute a lot of time and money. This is very admirable. But here, too, the motive is not necessarily driven by love for people. Often such commitment is done because it makes one feel better about oneself. But the call of Jesus Christ that not even the left hand should know from the right hand what one is doing shows that the motive of "feeling better" is not in demand either.
Love should drive us to do good. But what love is meant here. The word love can be understood in many ways. I love my wife. But I also love Coca-Cola Zero and I love India. It is immediately clear to all of us that this is not the same quality of love. But what kind of love should we show when it comes to doing good to others? Greek has several words, all of which are translated as love in German. They all mean love, but with a different emphasis. In 1 Corinthians 13:3 agape stands for love. Agape means selfless love. The love that is meant by God's love for us humans, the love of our neighbour and the love of our enemies.
This love should be the motive for our actions. God in heaven is an example for us. He gave us a gift full of devotion. "God did not even spare his own Son, but gave him for us all. And if God gave us Christ, won't he also give us everything else with him?" (Romans 8:32 NLB). Those who have a living relationship with Jesus Christ are challenged by this verse. How do we view our possessions? As a merit or as a gift? If possessions are seen as merit, then it is also clear that the honour for all that man does with them is also his.
Followers of Jesus Christ, however, who see their wealth as a gift from God, are free to use it. Then it is not important whether they receive recognition for their good deeds. Because everything was given to them out of grace and out of love they let others share in their possessions. Then recognition on earth is no longer necessary, but it is enough to know that God knows about this deed. But this does not mean that we are saved because of our deeds. This we are by grace alone, but this in turn leads us to act graciously ourselves.
Giving as a lifestyle
In keeping with the theme of the year, Metamorphosis, the theme of good deeds is also about being transformed into joyful givers. "Each of you must decide for yourselves how much you want to give. But do not give grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves the person who gives gladly" (2 Corinthians 5:7 NLB). Not that we give because we have to give, but because we enjoy it. Not out of wrong motives, but out of love for our neighbour and for God. This also raises the question of how we envision this change. When it comes to becoming more like Jesus Christ, I often wish that it could happen from one moment to the next. Of course this is also possible. Nevertheless, the same applies to a process of change that applies to a course of study, for example.
I studied for a total of six years, repeating things over and over again. If we want to change things in our lives, time and repetition are usually indispensable. It is the same with today's topic. The more we practise a generous lifestyle, the more natural it becomes. Already five hundred years ago Martin Luther gave the following advice "Whoever wants to do good must do it lavishly!" (Martin Luther). The more good deeds we do, the less the individual deed matters and the less we talk about it.
Do good and keep silent about it. This is the invitation that today's sermon also sends to you. It is important to rise to this challenge. For Jesus Christ, the amount of money given is not important. It is primarily about the inner attitude of the one who gives. "While Jesus was in the temple, he watched the rich people put their offerings into the offering box .Then a poor widow came and put in two small coins. "I assure you," he said, "this poor widow gave more than all the others. For those gave only a fraction of their abundance, but she, poor as she is, gave all that she had" (Luke 21:1-4 NLB). It is about a change of attitude towards all possessions. Not about demonising possessions, but about putting possessions in the right light.
I would like to close this sermon with a story that Jesus Christ told. Giving should become so natural for a follower of Jesus that giving is no longer perceived as such. So maybe one day some of us will be saved by God with the following reasoning.
"For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your house. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you nursed me. I was in prison and you visited me.' Then these righteous ones will ask: `Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty and give you drink? When were you a stranger and we gave you hospitality? Or when were you naked and we clothed you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the king will answer them, `I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me!" (Matthew 25:35-40 NLB).
Possible questions for the small group
Read Bible text: Matthew 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 13:3
- Where in your life do you experience the tension between doing good deeds and not talking about them?
- What are your motives for giving? Where do you find it more difficult to do good without recognition?
- Are your actions driven by love? How do you experience the love of God in and on your life? How can you learn to act out of this love?
- Do you see your possessions as earnings or as gifts? How does this show in the way you deal with it?
- Is your life characterised by a generous lifestyle? What can you do concretely to train such a lifestyle?