How to Give Alms

almsLet’s start with some exegesis. Matthew 6:2-4. Go.

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.

It’s is a good selection for this time of Lent, when who so believe are supposed to give, give, give. There’s a clear causal chain here. Give in public, and the admiration of the watchers is all you get. Nothing else. But do it where nobody can see, and you-know-who will ensure your just desserts when you get to you-know-where.

In Catholic churches these passages from Matthew are often read from and preached on during these days. Give!—But not too publicly. Are you giving enough? Are you being secretive enough to earn Fatherly rewards?

Then again, I recall this scene I once witnessed while spying on the circus at New Life Church in Colorado Springs (apparently a KtB right of passage), during their Saturday evening young adult service. After the totally awesome rock band and the sermon from the dude everybody wants for a big brother, there was a long presentation by a very eloquent Christian woman from India. She ran an orphanage and house for prostitutes and told a very beautiful story of all that God has done for them. But now, they were in need. Cows to milk, or something. She cried. So the big-brother-pastor got up on stage and shouted, “We’re gonna get her those cows!” He ran all up and down the stage and through the audience for ten minutes gathering checks and shouting out the amounts on them. Somebody with a calculator watch was adding them up as they came in. The place was in a frenzy as people charged the stage to contribute generous sums. It wasn’t long before this good-looking crowd of Americans had gotten the little Indian lady her cows.

That’s tough to beat. I’ve never seen more trumpet blowing (or closer to air guitar soloing, really) in my life. But they got the cows. God delivered, allegedly, though them. But which reward was theirs? Have they received it, or is it still to come, even more wonderfully? Or are they the hypocrites Jesus was warning about?

The other day, I was standing around with some buds and we were talking about giving. How we’d never really discussed the money we give. Maybe, we wondered, we’d give more if we knew that our friends were giving too. We’d know it’s a normal thing to do, a thing that shouldn’t be neglected. Letting others know when one gives sets an example. How else, after all, could the New Life young adults have come up with those cows so rapidly but peer pressure? The girls there were pretty, and they wouldn’t be happy if their boys didn’t pony up.

What’s so bad about settling for the earthly rewards anyway? Let’s not, after all, get too carried away about what giving really entails. Our stuff shouldn’t be that important that enormous supernatural rewards must be offered for us to part with it. Plus, the earthly rewards for giving are pretty good. Maybe better than they should be. You get admired as a benefactor, a philanthropist, a selfless soul. And you feel better about yourself. It’s quite a good deal.

It’s true, though, there are downsides to public giving. My mother worked at the Smithsonian museums, and, when I was a kid, she’d always complain about how all the donors were trying to tell the museums how to use their money. Huge egos there. Also, giving can become like a poker game, where everybody’s anteing up to stay in the game, even to the point of driving some into irresponsible ruin. High-priced generosity is, for sure, a luxury item like any other—meant to show others who’s boss. So, as far as that’s concerned, Jesus has a point.

But there’s got to be a balance. Maybe we can revise the word of God a bit. (Hey, if my New Revised Standard Version can do it, why can’t I?) Just a couple of words. Enough so that it’s okay sometimes to get rapt up in a frenzy of public giving or to set an example to your friends. And even to get a little earthly reward in the process. But keep it reasonable. Above and beyond that, there’s lots to be said for not being so conspicuous, for investing in the mysterious other prizes. Hopefully they’re good or, if not, can be returned.

Is it okay, Jesus, if we sometimes toot our trumpets a little for a good cause?

Speaking of which, special offer this week: donate to KtB and we’ll (if you like) plaster your name on the blog!

… And speak of the devil—as I write this, we just received a whopping $0.20 donation from one TUUL BILGUUN in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Thanks for your generosity, Tuul, you’re the best. We love Mongolia here at KtB.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.