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.-Matthew 6:2-4
Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This wisdom from Jesus has found its way into contemporary conversation, but probably not in the way Jesus intended. When we think of an organization where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it can be one of the harshest critiques of a company, an administration, a church, a family. But in the context of Jesus’ preaching, it really is about the value of doing what we do without concern for recognition. It’s about the ways we think about reward. It’s about what motivates us to do good.
This week, we continue with the portion of the Sermon on the Mount which asks us to consider what drives our spiritual practices. These are good Lenten questions. Last Monday morning, we explored those motivations. And last Monday evening, with my nightly reading of Howard Thurman, I came across a pertinent reflection in his book, Meditations of the Heart. Better late than never. As we hear Jesus talk about our frame of mind as we give alms (which I take to mean as we offer help to people in need), Howard Thurman offered helpful amplification. Here are some excerpts from this meditation entitled “Shall I do good?”
Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? It is very difficult to escape the searching tyranny of reward and punishment…Again and again, to be good means to us to be approved.
The virtuous act may or may not pay dividends. In the last analysis, [men] cannot be persuaded to be good because of the reward either here or beyond this “vale of tears.” [Men] must finally come to the place in their maturity which makes them do the good thing because it is good.
When this is our awareness, then the whole matter of reward and punishment, approval and disapproval, becomes strangely irrelevant. Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? No! I shall be good because it is good.
We often talk about folks who give alms, those who serve with time, talent and treasure as people who are do-gooders. It’s not always a positive description. In light of what Jesus says, amplified by Howard Thurman, what does it mean to you to do good? These early days in Lent are a good time to think about that. There’s opportunity for a seasonal focus on what we might take on as a spiritual discipline. We often find that is some way of helping people in need. Those needs surround us. There’s plenty of opportunity.
So may I suggest this week that you and I consider ways to provide support for someone in need, doing so under the radar. Don’t sound any trumpets in advance of this good work. If at all possible, do it in a way that it would not be possible for that person to thank you, in a way that no one would know that you have done this good thing. It might be serving those without homes or food. It might be reaching out to someone who is isolated or grieving. Maybe it’s sending an anonymous bouquet or a meal. Maybe it’s a really generous tip. It might be a generous contribution to a person we pass on the street. Maybe it’s making a contribution to support Ukrainian refugee relief. It may not be possible to do this anonymously. If that’s the case, don’t let it stop you from giving. But to the best of your ability, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Then reflect on that experience.
Thurman put it this way: I shall be good because it is good. That’s all we need to know. Our practice of goodness, whether anybody else is aware of it or not, whether anybody recognizes it or not, puts us in a holy place.