Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Let Your Left Hand See Your Right

Matthew 6:1-4, Deuteronomy 15
Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

A friend of mine visits a lot of churches as a guest preacher. In one Tennessee congregation, he was greeting church members at the back door one Sunday. Meanwhile, the pastor’s son was running around in the sanctuary. He ran up and down the aisles, jumped up and down on one of the pews, and then scrambled into the pulpit. Suddenly he discovered, to his great delight, that the sound system was still on. He pulled down the microphone and yelled, “Is this thing on?” Sure enough it was, as everybody snapped around to look. Discovering he had an audience, he said, “Hey everybody, I’m up in front. Look at me, look at me!”

At the back of the church, the next person in line said to the visiting preacher, “Unfortunately, we’ve heard that sermon way too many times.”

I suppose all of us have. And not only as it’s been preached in this pulpit. All of us have heard people who talked too much about themselves, those who make every situation a personal stage, those who seek attention and will do anything to get it.

Jesus warns the church about this. You are the light of the world, he says, and your light is not to be hidden under a basket – but at the same time, don’t blast your spotlight into the eyes of others. Our spiritual behavior is never about our superiority. It is about giving ourselves to God and the needs of the world.

The example he gives is the giving of alms, the offering of our money for the needs of others. “Don’t blast your trumpet,” he warns. “Don’t stand before others and say, ‘Look at how generous I am!’” Others will be turned off, and God will not be impressed. No, whenever you give alms, do so quietly. It’s good advice.

Almsgiving is not mentioned very much in the New Testament. That’s not because the early church was stingy, but because the practice was assumed. Jesus says, “Whenever you give alms,” not “If you give alms.” Christians, like the Jews before them, are known by the ability to put themselves out for their neighbors. We cannot live together as a spiritual community if we don’t pay attention to one another’s needs. And if we blow the trumpet to say, “Look at me, look at me,” we obviously aren’t looking at the neighbor who needs our help.

As we begin the season of Lent together, we hear Jesus suggest a healthy kind of forgetfulness. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Don’t hover over how generous you are – that will only lead to pride and self-centered attitudes. Rather, focus on those who need the gift. Forget about yourself, forget about your importance, forget about your ability to help – and sink into the practice of generous of love. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of this teaching, “”Genuine love is always self-forgetful.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 178)

Or as one wise old sage said to me, “Get in the practice of giving so much that you no longer keep track  of much you have given.” Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand has given.

The word for “almsgiving” comes from the same word as “mercy.” When we give our money or our attention to somebody in need, we are extending mercy. We are making it real. The same mercy shown to us by Christ is what we offer to one another. In this sense we remember the Beatitude of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It’s not a strategy for getting in God’s good favor. Rather it’s a promise that our own hearts will be transformed as we try to make a difference in the lives of others. Mercy breeds more mercy, unless we forget that it begins with God’s mercy for all of us.

That is the mercy that gathers us here. God has come to a broken world because God has mercy on us. We can choose to remain broken, to remain indifferent. We can look at a hungry child and say, “He’s not my kid,” or look from a distance at hurricane victims and say, “Glad that didn’t happen to us,” or we can view victims of violence and abuse and declare, “There but for the mercy of God…” Listen: if we know anything about mercy, we know that mercy doesn’t make us any better than anybody else. Mercy only makes sense when we share it with others.

That is the invitation for us. We remember tonight we are dust, nothing more than dust - and it is only by the mercy of Jesus Christ that we get rescued in the middle of the mess of this world. In our lostness, God found us, in order that we may find those who remain in need.

So when you give alms, when you care for another, do not blow your trumpet for attention. No, save all your attention for those around you. And let them know in tangible ways that all of us are precious to God.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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