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Dr. Philip W. McLarty
This is the fifth sermon in our series on the Sermon on the Mount. The first sermon gave us a broad overview; then we took a close look at the Beatitudes and spent two Sundays on the Antitheses.
Today we move on to chapter six, which begins with three fundamental spiritual disciplines common to all Jews in Jesus’ day: Almsgiving, prayer and fasting. We’ll deal with almsgiving today and get to prayer and fasting in the weeks ahead. But first, in preface to all three disciplines, Jesus issues a word of warning:
“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”(Matthew 6:1)
If you allow your almsgiving, prayer and fasting to put you in the spotlight, you’ve missed the point. You may get the praise of others, but that’s all you’ll get. What you won’t get are the blessings God has in store for you when you go about doing good deeds surreptitiously.
Well, as you might guess by the title, that’s the thesis of the sermon this morning: The best expression of giving alms is anonymous giving, where the recipient never knows who it was who gave lent him a helping hand.
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This actually happened to me years ago, though I hasten to say I wasn’t in need at the time. Someone in my congregation wanted to give me a new suit of clothes. Out of the blue, a sales rep from a clothing store in town called and asked if he could come take my measurements. All he would tell me was that the gift was to be anonymous. I reluctantly went along and got a beautiful new suit out of it.
But I was never able to thank the donor. To this day, I don’t know who gave it to me. I thought of several people in the congregation it might have been. Every Sunday I’d look over the congregation and pick out an individual or two and think to myself, “It’d be just like him/her to do that sort of thing.” But then, I had no way of knowing for sure.
What I learned was this: When you give anonymously, you join the ranks of all those who give anonymously; so that, whenever anyone gives a gift anonymously, you share in the joy of their giving and receive a portion of the credit.
When you know who gave you the gift, you can say, “Thank you,” and that’s the end of it – the cycle is complete and the donor has his/her reward. But with anonymous giving, it’s different. Since you don’t know who to thank, the gratitude goes on and on. To this day, I continue to be grateful to whomever it was who gave me the new suit, and, as I said, that was years ago. Now, let’s think about how this pertains to giving alms.
First of all, what do know about alms? The standard definition is that alms are monies and/or goods given to the poor. Giving alms is like charitable giving, but not quite. When you give to a charity like Hope in Action, your contributions are distributed in a systematic way to those in need and, of course, a small portion is used to run the organization.
Almsgiving is personal. It’s about giving directly to the poor, and, if you’ve ever given help directly to someone in need, you know that it’s a lot trickier than giving to a charitable cause. If you want to give to charity, all you have to do is write a check. But to give alms to an individual or family you have to get personally involved, and that can get complicated. Yet, this is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about – living as children of God in a covenant relationship with each other.
Truth to tell, Jesus didn’t know anything about Hope in Action or the Salvation Army or the Red Cross, or Save the Children, or any of the other charitable organizations. For that matter, he didn’t know anything about the Presbyterian Church and our missions program. But he knew a lot about widows and orphans and beggars and lepers. He had compassion for those less fortunate, and he taught his disciples to have compassion, as well. He said,
“Give to him who asks you,
and don’t turn away him
who desires to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
Understand, this is not bank policy; this is about your relationship to others, one-on-one.
The question is how do you know if the other person is really in need? A friend told me last week of a woman who approached her in a parking lot and asked for a handout. She said the woman asking for money gave her a long story and asked for two dollars. She said, “I didn’t believe a word she said, but I gave her the two dollars, anyway. Do you think I did the right thing?”
I said yes. We get calls at the church from people asking for help, and it’s hard to know the extent of their need. Some may be in dire straights; others may be just trying to maintain their standard of living. Seriously, when someone calls on a cell phone asking for help and asks to put you on hold because they’ve got a call coming in on the other line, you can help but think of them differently than if they were, say, standing at the door gaunt and hungry asking if we have any leftovers in the refrigerator.
It’s hard to know if another person is truly in need. I tend to err on the side of giving them the benefit of the doubt. I figure it’s better to be taken advantage of than to turn someone down who’s truly in need. If someone’s pulling the wool over your eyes, they’ll have to answer to the Lord about it; but if they’re really in need and you turn them away, then it’s you who’ll have to answer to the Lord. In the scene of the Great Judgment, Jesus said in the negative,
“…for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink… ” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? … The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:35-40)
There’s also the question of enabling: By helping someone make ends meet, are you giving them a chance to stand on their own two feet, or are you furthering an on-going cycle of dependence? At the end of the day, will your almsgiving make them stronger or weaker?
Again, it’s hard to know. If you’ve ever been down and out, you how important it is to be given a helping hand. Barbara (not her real name) came to our church divorced for the second time. She had two small children. Her life was a wreck. She was unemployed and, in most respects, unemployable. One of the elders helped her apply for food stamps and get a government-subsidized apartment. Members of the church rallied around her and helped her in various ways. We all encouraged her to look to God to give her the strength and direction she needed to put her life back together.
One day she came by the church and said she was embarrassed that she didn’t have money to put in the offering plate. She asked if she could do odd jobs around the church to make a contribution. In time she was cleaning, painting, mowing and doing whatever needed to be done around the building and grounds. She was a worker. She also took part-time jobs in the neighborhood to make extra money. She was determined to get off welfare.
Several months passed. She joined a woman’s circle, taught a children’s Sunday school class and helped with fellowship activities. She and her kids baked cookies and picked flowers to take to the elderly. Then she got a job as clerk of an elementary school. She blossomed. In no time, she was supporting herself and her kids and helping others in the process.
Of course, not all young women are like Barbara. Many get on food stamps and Section 8 housing, and that becomes the beginning of a lifetime of dependence. What’s sad is that, with growing dependence comes the loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. As a rule, the more you do for yourself, the stronger you’ll become; the more you depend on others, the weaker.
So yes, we ought to help those who are down and out to get on their feet. But we need to be careful that in giving alms we not become enablers. An old Chinese saying goes, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime.”
That’s the goal – to teach others to do for themselves – to become as independent as possible, to the point that they become givers – helping others, as others once helped them. What Paul said of thieves goes for all those who are able to work. He said,
“(They must)…labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28)
That leads to another question: Why? Why should you give to the poor? What’s your motivation? If it’s obligation, watch out. Giving because you feel obligated usually leads to resentment, especially when the needy person comes back for more: “What did you do with the money I just gave you?” you want to know. Giving out of a sense of duty is a dead end street.
So is guilt. Feeling guilty because you have so much when others have so little isn’t going to help you or them. It’s only going to make you angry. Face it, life is full of inequities, and there’s not much you can do about it. Even if you gave away all that you have, you wouldn’t even the score. People who feel guilty about their material wealth usually end up avoiding people in need altogether, in which case, nobody benefits.
So, rule out guilt and obligation from the start. In their place, put in a healthy dose of compassion and gratitude: Compassion, in that you care for those less fortunate and want them to have a better life; and gratitude, because you know that all that you are and all that you have is a gift of God. True, you may have worked hard to get ahead, but God gave you the ability and the determination and the drive.
Compassion for others and gratitude to God are the best reasons to give alms to the poor, and the best way to go about it is to give anonymously: “…don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does…” (Matthew 6:3-4)
We used to play a little game in Elementary Summer Camp called, “Secret Friends.” On the first day of camp, the kids would draw a name out of hat, and that camper would be his/her secret friend for the week. The goal was to do nice things for the other person without the other person knowing who did it.
It was great fun. Some would slip back to the cabin after breakfast and make up their secret friend’s bed. Some would leave a candy bar or Coke in their secret friend’s locker during swim time. Some would pick a bouquet of wildflowers; others would make arts and crafts projects and leave them in a conspicuous place with their secret friend’s name on it. Those on the receiving end would try to guess who their secret friend was but, as often as not, they never found out until the end of the week.
In our closing worship service, we’d ask the kids to think what a wonderful world this would be if we were to take the game of secret friends home with us, and it were to catch on and spread throughout our churches and our communities. What if we were all as intentional about doing nice things for others secretly, not because they deserve it or expect it in any way, but because we’re grateful for what God has done for us, and we want to share God’s goodness with others? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world to live in? It’d be like the kingdom of God on earth.
It’s all about anonymous giving. In closing, here are three quick illustrations:
• A single mother with a house full of children has a daughter with really crooked teeth. There’s no way she can afford to have them fixed. Out of the blue, she gets a call from an orthodontist who says an individual has retained his services for her daughter. The daughter is fitted with braces and today has a perfectly beautiful smile.
• A family has a child enrolled in a private school when, due to circumstances beyond their control, they are no longer able to pay her tuition. Word gets around and the school gets a call from an individual who offers to pay the full cost of her tuition.
• Then there’s this – I saw it with my own eyes not long ago: A police officer and his family were eating in a local restaurant. When I went to pay, the man in front of me at the cash register said something to the cashier. She looked over to where the officer and his family were sitting, nodded her head, and added his ticket to the man’s bill. He paid the tab and left without a word.
These things happen all the time. And they’re within the range of any one of us here. You don’t have to have a lot of money, and you don’t have to look far. All you have to have is a heart for sharing the blessings you’ve received with others without calling attention to yourself.
Here’s what I’d like for you to take home with you today: Be a secret friend. Give alms to the poor. Do nice things for others. Share the gifts of faith, hope and love anonymously to the glory of God. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Find ways to grace the lives of others without their knowing it was you, and your heavenly father, who sees in secret, will reward you; and, to your great surprise, you will be the one to receive the greater blessing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.