September 6, 2005

"But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

Glenn Reynolds expects anyone who donates to disaster relief to display their contribution on a website. Why wouldn't they? Maybe they take Matthew 6 seriously:
1 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
IN THE COMMENTS: People offer various interpretations of the scripture and note that you can post the amount you gave anonymously at the website Glenn links to. I respond:
I'm not purporting to interpret this scripture and won't argue about how it should really be read, but I think there is a scruple about calling attention to charity that some people might be hardcore about. Posting even anonymously on a website that is only about advertising charity could be taken as wrong. I note Jesus sounds rather hardcore about it and puts the stakes very high.

I agree that posting the number can serve the independent good of encouraging more donations. But why doesn't Jesus mention that?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
The Matthew quote on your blog attacks Jews (i.e. those who go to synagogues) as hypocrites when it comes to charity. In fact, anonymous giving is considered the highest form of giving in Jewish tradition (see the writings of Maimonides) both in order to save the recipient from the burdens of embarressment or obligation to the donor, and in order to ensure that the real motivation is charity and not self-aggrandizement.
It seems to me that Jesus is part of that tradition then. He's not condemning Jews in general (and, of course, is himself a Jew). He's criticizing anyone who uses charitable giving to show off in various public spaces — "in the synagogues and in the streets." Clearly, doing the same thing in a church or in a secular building or on a website presents the same problem, and clearly, simply being someone who goes to a synagogue is not itself the problem.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Despite the wording of that update, I do realize that Maimonides lived after Jesus. An emailer writes:
Regarding your post on anonymous donation today, you may be aware that Maimonides lived 1000 years after Christ, and as a secular philosopher, was as likely to have been influenced by Christian thought as anything else. Be that as it may, Maimonides, and not the Old Testament, is the most-commonly cited source for Jewish doctrine that anonymous donation is to be valued above others.

It seems to me that anonymous giving is a fine ethical point. I can see why religious and secular teachers might arrive at it independently or by agreeing with each other. I'm afraid if it were pushed in modern America, it would tend to result in people giving a lot less. It's part of our culture to have telethons and celebrity appeals and things like that. I can't really picture a move toward some austere new form of virtue. We do things in our political, showbiz, pop culture way. There's Oprah at the Superdome, and Travolta's flying in with supplies. That's America! I'm not really trying to correct everyone.

The emailer continues:
I acknowledge that there is a purpose to publicizing certain aspects of charity - peer pressure encourages charity. However, I am troubled when charity becomes one more form of divisiveness - an example of which was Ann Coulter's (reported) recent remark that New Yorkers would be slow to reciprocate to the Gulf the help showed them.

Mmm, yeah. I'm not out there looking for it, but I could imagine the blogosphere turning accusatory. The righties are giving more than the lefties! And some would defend that as useful in drumming up more contributions.

56 comments:

michael said...

Donations can be posted anonymously.

rgmb said...

From a Christian perspective anonymity may be commendable. However, there is also the belief that being recognized for one's contributions encourages others to contribute as well. Whatever the intentions or the heavenly reward, it's my opinion that the latter has a better bottom line.

leeontheroad said...

This one is a tough call, because the Gospel is very clear about not beign prideful. One solution might be what a wealthy parishioner did: he or she donated $20,000 to start a parish fund to be sent to our denominational relief organization, as a challenge to all others, especially others of means, to give generously. It is not prideful to be an example of generosity when no compliments can ensue to the donor.

George said...

Not a tough call, since "anonymous," first name only, or pseudonym are all options.

It is important for people to see amounts others are giving, as well as aggregate amounts. The need is staggering.

I felt funny, for reasons including this scripture, about posting my own amount on my blog, and ended up doing so only in terms of being in the range suggested by my kids, which I specified.

As long as the motive is not pride in one's wealth or generosity, but a sincere desire to motivate others, getting down to dollars is a positive, and no sin, IMHO.

It is also important to remember the parable of the poor widow (Mark 12:41): no contribution is too small if it is commensurate with your ability and well-motivated.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not purporting to interpret this scripture and won't argue about how it should really be read, but I think there is a scruple about calling attention to charity that some people might be hardcore about. Posting even anonymously on a website that is only about advertising charity could be taken as wrong. I note Jesus sounds rather hardcore about it and puts the stakes very high.

I agree that posting the number can serve the independent good of encouraging more donations. But why doesn't Jesus mention that?

Steven A. Stehling said...

"I agree that posting the number can serve the independent good of encouraging more donations. But why doesn't Jesus mention that?"

Jesus had a really difficult time explaining HTML, the concept of websites and the things to come in general. People just assumed he was speaking in tongues and just nodded. When the Bible was later edited that text was removed because it was causing some confusion during the Middle Ages.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Steve. LOL But I see material in that passage that is relevant. The showy charity-givers of his time could have made the same argument that they were serving as an example. It's a big and obvious point. Why didn't he care about that?

leeontheroad said...

why doesn't Jesus mention that?

I like Stephen's answer, but a standard Barthesian reading (thus common to most Protestant denominations) is that Matt. 6 isn't about charity but about the necessity for sincere, not showy, response(s) to God. Ch. 7 is more a practical guide, beginning with "judge not, lest ye be judged." But it also says;

"a wise man [. . .] built his house upon the rock and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon the house, but it did not fall because it been founded on the rock." (24b-25)

Yet we neither think that means we should only give to those in need who built on rocks-- nor do we think that Jesus is actually providing us with construction advice.

I will further note that the setup at TTLB assumes on donation, during this period, to one charity. It assumes on swell foop, if you will, whereas I imagine many will give in a variety of ways that may not be dollar denominated.

And it's all good, as my students would say.

SippicanCottage said...
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mcg said...

But why doesn't Jesus mention that?

Well, why don't we go to Scripture? :-)

John 21:25: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written."

Too Many Jims said...

ONe other thing Jesus did not foresee was the U.S. tax code. We had a family friend who use to tithe to their church in cash and not claim the deduction.

mcg said...

But in all seriousness I concur with leeontheroad. God is quite capable of judging our intent. If our intent is not to be prideful but to encourage others, He will know that. When Jesus said what he did, he was addressing an entire class of religious types who had fallen headfirst into the practice of showing off their religiosity. In this same passage he rebukes those who stand on streetcorners when praying, or dress down when fasting, in both cases for the purposes of "showing off."

mcg said...

One other thing Jesus did not foresee was the U.S. tax code.

Umm, how do you know? :) Just because He did not address something in the specific does not mean that Scripture is somehow lacking in its application to it.

SippicanCottage said...
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C. Schweitzer said...

I agree that it's the intentions that matter and that God will sort those out. But, my question about intentions here is whether the cheerleading by Glenn and others for disclosing contributions on "The Truth Laid Bear" and making it known (even anominmously) that these contributions come from bloggers or blog readers is really more about trying to elevate the status of blogs--essentially--"hey, look what we do. Blogs are good."

I'm not sure there isn't an underlying selfish, self-aggrandizing motive mixed in there.

Tom Kubilius said...

True enough. I agree that Glenn's effort is probably more focused on encouraging as many people as possbile to donate. For most practicing Christians, this is certainly not the ONLY charity they are doing. Because of the great need, building a sense of community in the giving might help get some people who migh not otherwise donate to give.

Signing 'anon' seems like a good alternative. I suspect that some folks just filled out their names when requested because we are so used to just filling out forms on the web that way, not as a form of bragging, or 'announcing our almsgiving with trumpets...'

I generally don't announce my charity
(if it, in fact, exists), but I suspect many of us slipped up on keeping our left hands in the dark in the spirit of community.

In this case I'll just have to say, "Good point, Ann."

Tom Kubilius said...

This also might be the antidote to "No good deed goes unpunished."

It does if no one knows about it.

Pastor_Jeff said...

The whole Sermon on the Mount is about contrasting a shallow, outward religiosity with a real love for God that demands much more of us and is internally motivated. Jesus is indeed warning against giving in order to be recognized. While that can happen, that's not the motivation behind the TTLB effort, and we have to read Jesus' warning in light of other things the Bible has to say about giving.

In 1 Chronicles 29, David publicly makes a point of how much he has personally given to the Temple building program to get others to give. It's clear that David is doing this in humble gratitude to God, and not in pride or in order to manipulate. A respected leader set a standard in giving to motivate others, and the result was an outpouring of generosity that the text clearly commends.

michael said...

Jesus also said:

Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."
(emphasis added)

Quite the same sentiment as that expressed in the passage you cite. But does that mean that Jesus would find all churchgoers to be "hypocrites"? Would the most pious of churches, judging from this passage, be required to erect a building full of closets with secret entrances? Or perhaps all parishoners should be required to attend mass in burqas. An absurd suggestion, I agree, but if an anonymous gift being noted on a website that calls attention to a charity is violative of Jesus' command, wouldn't attending church be the equivalent violation?

Of course, I some may read the scripture as you suggest, Ann, and bully for them if they do. But I'm hard pressed to view them as the norm. Then again, maybe that just means we're all a bunch of hypocritcal sinners doomed for hell :@

Ann Althouse said...

Michael: I think there is a good argument to be made that Jesus is telling us not to go to church.

lindsey said...

"The most generous philanthropist in the history of the US was John D. Rockefeller."

I've read that JD is also the wealthiest human being to have ever lived. If you adjust for inflation, he apparently had the modern equivalent of 100 billion dollars. Makes Bill Gates look like a piker.

lindsey said...

It sounds like that's why they built the confessional :)

Robert said...

Jesus isn't telling people not to go to church.

He's telling us to remember WHY we go to church - because we're sinners who need to repent, who need to be publicly acknowledging that we have behaved sinfully. He's reminding us that we're not following him because of how good and pure we are - quite the opposite.

The Pharisees (whether of the 1st or the 21st century AD) go to church to stand up in self-righteousness. Jesus is saying "nuh unh" to that, not to attendance itself.

Ann Althouse said...

The interpretation of this passage interests me as a conlawprof. People are sure it (and that pray in secret passage) can't be taken literally. We feel we know what Jesus must have met, then we interpret the text to harmonize with what we think it should mean.

By the way, I've also gotten email saying the passage is anti-Semitic and that the objection to publicizing charity is offensive to Jews.

michael said...

Michael: I think there is a good argument to be made that Jesus is telling us not to go to church.

All right, Ann. I'm going to try it out on my wife this weekend, but I don't think it'll work. I will, of course, blame you for planting the idea in my oh-so-impressionable mind.

leeontheroad said...

Many scholars have argued Matt. itself is anti-Pharisee gospel and from that comes the overgeneralization about anti-Semitism in this Gospel.

Muddying the crispness of Christian "rules" in comparison to Con Law is that there are four canonical gospels of at least two literary forms. When Christins try to examine "original intent," they are called liberals. In sweeping generalization, the oppositie is true of constitutional interpreters.

michael said...

From what little I still remember from religion class (I went to Catholic school), the important part of the passage you cite, Ann, is the "don't let the left hand know what the right is doing." IIRC, the right hand is always associated with godliness (e.g. ,".. seated at the right hand of God ..."). Doing God's work (with the right hand) should not be tallied up by the left hand (representing man as terminal being) so as to create laurels upon which to rest. Do the good deed, forget about it and move on. There will be plenty of time for patting oneself on one's back upon admittance to heaven, where God will reward you openly.

That's my fuzzy recollection of what it means anyway.

mcg said...

I think there is a good argument to be made that Jesus is telling us not to go to church.

Jesus went to synagogue himself and participated in its rituals; for example, he participated in the reading of the scroll of Isaiah in his hometwon synagogue. (Of course, he promptly announced that it had been fulfilled in him!) He affirmed the Jewish practices of tithing and sacrifice, and temple rituals, even as he criticized the manner in which the Pharisees conducted them.

Early Hebrew Christians still went to synagogue even as they participated in separate meetings of Christ-followers. And both the apostles Paul and Peter affirm a certain degree of structure in the Christian community consistent with church attendance.

No doubt, however, churches as institutions or buildings often get in the way of churches as bodies of believers in Christ (or to use the Biblical term, as the Body of Christ). The mistakes of the Pharisees are ever present.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Ann,

The old seminary saying is: "A text without a context is just a pretext." You could read Matthew 6 as Jesus saying "Don't go to church" - except that Jesus himself participated in synagogue and Temple worship, and his disciples did the same (and commanded us not to give up gathering together). Read Jesus' comment in light of the whole New Testament.

Freeman Hunt said...

When Christins try to examine "original intent," they are called liberals.

What do you mean here? I do not think that this is true, but maybe I am misunderstanding you.

michael said...

From a conflict of laws perspective, how do you reconcile

(Matthew 6) ...do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.

with

Matthew 5:14-16 (Luke 8:16-18, Mark 4:21)

14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

leeontheroad said...

Freeman,

In general, conservative Christian denominations look to the literal meaning of (translated) texts. (More so-called) liberal denominations do not do so, in doctrine or theology. (This is not to say that Scripture ceases to eb the foundation of belief nd practice, by any means.)

There are also examples where folks' practice differs from what they say they do, such that they agree in practice that there may be exceptions to the plain meaning of Gospel. Jesus says very clearly, for example, that a man may not divorce his wife. (Matt. 19: 3-8). Protestant denominations, from the SBC to the Episcopal Church, permit it (though with the general idea that there are very limited valid grounds).

Harkonnendog said...

I think that Matthew was more worried about rich people claiming moral superiority by citing their charitable deeds. Doesn't really apply outside of a small community, much less to near-anonymous bloggers. And when you give the example of you giving, that will often inspire others to give, through guilt if nothing else, so in a way you're giving more than what you gave by letting others know you've given.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Michael,

In the first case, Jesus is warning against charity for the purpose of being seen and applauded. This kind of charity is man-centered and proud. In the second case, Jesus is reminding his followers that they have good news that others need to hear. And when people see how God transforms lives for the better (as evidenced in charity, mercy, honesty, etc.), God will be glorified and people will be drawn to Him. Christians are to be good news.

The two commands correlate perfectly. They are opposite sides of the same coin - Do what is good in humility, out of love for God, so that God gets the glory.


Lee,

Jesus and Paul both made limited exceptions for divorce.

michael said...

Pastor Jeff:

That's my reading of the passages too. Do good deeds for the glory of God not one's self.

But I think Ann raises an interesting point that Matthew 6 can be interpretted as prohibiting public announcements concerning charitable giving while still letting one's light shine in one's every day actions that glorify God.

mcg said...

The Matthew quote on your blog attacks Jews (i.e. those who go to synagogues) as hypocrites when it comes to charity.

It has always seemed clear to me that Jesus' critical words were never directed towards Jews as a whole, but rather a specific subset of religious leaders of the time. In fact, in another passage, he praised the faith of a widow who gave her last money in offering. She was Jewish too, of course.

In fact, anonymous giving is considered the highest form of giving in Jewish tradition (see the writings of Maimonides) both in order to save the recipient from the burdens of embarressment or obligation to the donor, and in order to ensure that the real motivation is charity and not self-aggrandizement.

And I would imagine Jesus would have agreed with that. (Though I haven't asked him. :)) Indeed, much of Jesus' criticism reflects, to me at least, a profound respect for Jewish law and tradition, and anger and sadness about the misuse of it.

leeontheroad said...

Pastor Jeff,

My point is about using individual passages, such as Matthew, where Jesus' only given exception is "unchastity." (19: 9). Later Paulien exceptions, then, from a literalist point of view, conflict with this.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Michael,

No argument with you or Ann. The Matthew 6 passage can be read that way, but I don't think it must be read that way. I've enjoyed this discussion on Biblical ethics - something that informs a lot of people's consciences but isn't discussed much publicly.

Pastor_Jeff said...

There are also examples where folks' practice differs from what they say they do, such that they agree in practice that there may be exceptions to the plain meaning of Gospel. Jesus says very clearly, for example, that a man may not divorce his wife. (Matt. 19: 3-8). Protestant denominations, from the SBC to the Episcopal Church, permit it (though with the general idea that there are very limited valid grounds).

Lee,

Your point seemed to be that conservatives don't practice what they preach. I was pointing out that conservatives can allow for divorce without ignoring the plain meaning of Scripture. Jesus prohibited divorce but gave exceptions, as did Paul (who is not conflicting Jesus, given that there is an interpretive issue in the Greek construction and a fairly broad term used by Jesus to describe the exemption). Your choice of words gave the impression that any allowance for divorce was ignoring Scripture. That is not fair or accurate.

Freeman Hunt said...

In general, conservative Christian denominations look to the literal meaning of (translated) texts. (More so-called) liberal denominations do not do so, in doctrine or theology.

I would agree with this statement if the word "conservative" were changed to "fundamentalist."

leeontheroad said...

Fair point, Pastor, re: fairness and accuracy in my omission. Thank you for pointing it out.

However, I was not intending to call out a particualr group of beleivers about "not practicing what they preach" by any means. Rather, in the generalizations about the place(s) from which doctrinal authority derives, differences between a)our shorthand understandings of various doctrines (vs. actual practice); and b) among canonical texts
lead us to misconceptions and labels.

I do study and consider historical and social contexts, but I also take literally that I should be more concerned about the log in my eye than any specks that may be in any else's.

mcg said...

I also take literally that I should be more concerned about the log in my eye than any specks that may be in any else's.

Wow, you literally have a log in your eye? That must hurt :)

Just kidding. I understand what you mean. I hope you don't mind me sharing the chuckle I had though.

Charlie Eklund said...

Religion aside, I find calling attention to one's own good works distasteful at the very least.

Yea. Verily.

Glenn said...

So now I'm a bad Christian? :)

It's not the first time I've been called that, but . . . .

I, of course, have been stressing aggregate giving as a way of encouraging people to give more via the well-known bandwagon effect. This seems to me to be different than the kind of bragging discussed in that passage. And doing it seems to have spurred a lot of donations, which I think is a good thing.

I guess I could have just said "the poor will always be with you" and washed my hands of the problem. But if Jesus didn't say "Jeez, you can't please everybody," I'm willing to bet that he thought it a time or two . . .

Ann Althouse said...

Hi, Glenn. Thanks for joining us! And for that emoticon! I'm just giving one reason why not everyone who gives puts their name up on a site like that or wants to be linked as participating in a blogathon. I'm glad money has raised by whatever methods work, not everyone responds to the same thing.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm asked if I actually think our "Glenn" is really Glenn Reynolds. The answer is no. There are at least five signs that it's not!

Slocum said...

Well, I'm not a Christian -- at least not a practicing one, so I don't find the interpretation of biblical texts to be very interesting.

A better question, in my mind is whether totally anonymous giving is really better. Is recognizing people for charitable giving really a *bad* thing (as opposed to, say, recognizing people for scoring touchdowns or being on TV)?

I'm much less concerned about pure motives than desirable outcomes and if public recognition tends to increase charitable giving (and how could it not), then I'm all for it.

Ann Althouse said...

Slocum: I'm not disagreeing with that. My only point is that people who expect to see everyone log in are failing to understand the moral/religious scruple that some people have. One of my reasons for not thinking our "Glenn" is the real Glenn, by the way, is that I don't think he'd misread my post that way.

Wave Maker said...

How 'bout that he doesn't link to his blog but to an anonymous profile?

Sloanasaurus said...

Common sense would say that someone posting their name as the source of a gift is being "less charitable." However, it is okay for someone else to point out the gift. Perhaps this social norm evolves from the Christian tradition.

What is unfortunate for the victims of Katrina is the partisan sniping. Now 1/2 of the country is alienated with the whole event. Eventually, this will lead to less giving.

Jib said...

Somewhat overlooked here is a simple thing called modesty. Some people simply do not care to see any recognition of their charitable contributions. For them, such public recognition carries with it a burning embarassment-not because they are ashamed of what they are doing, but because they don't feel they should receive any kind of recognition for giving to others.

Slocum said...

I'm not disagreeing with that. My only point is that people who expect to see everyone log in are failing to understand the moral/religious scruple that some people have.

Well, I have to say that meaning (and only that meaning) is not clear in your original post--the post (and the title especially) suggest not only that you think not only do some people have those scruples (is that news?) but also that you're endorsing them -- that those scruples are right in principle.

As starting point for a blog discussion in the wake of Katrina, the thesis that charitable giving should ideally be anonymous is certainly more interesting than merely noting that some people believe giving should be anonymous (which is indisputable).

I gave you the benefit of assuming you intended to be interesting ;)

Ann Althouse said...

Slocum: Did you see the quotes around the title? I often use a quote for a title, where you need to read the post to see what position, if any, I'm taking about it. That's a very famous saying of Jesus's, anyway, and obviously not mine. I actually frequently write posts that you need to think a bit to understand. I know it makes some people overreact sometimes (and even do posts on other blogs getting mad at me). That's part of my modus operandi. I invite you to learn to appreciate it!

Jib: Yes. Well put. And I think, similarly, that many people thing charitable giving is a routine thing, like saying thank you when someone gives you something. In that view, it would be embarrassing to say, look how good I am. And beyond that, many people think it's basically an obligation if you're to keep your self respect, so saying that you did it is like saying you paid your taxes.

Finn Kristiansen said...

I remember being in church, and my father would prepare his check for the tithe offering, and it was always some relatively big amount over $100 each Sunday. He would take that check and fold it up so nobody could see his name on it. Other people would toss their checks into the bucket all face up and open. (But who knows, maybe the mere act of paying by check was vanity as well, in addition to angling for documentation for tax write-offs. Hmmmm.)

In many things in the New Testament, God cares more about intent than the actual act itself. (Who were the two people--the only two people--ever struck dead in the New Testament, Siphirra and her husband, and over money). If he knows the heart is right, he knows he can count on you for anything, penny, dime or dollar.

Even in terms of tithing, where the Old Testament dictates a steady 10%, we see Jesus suggesting we should be prepared to give 100% (as dictated by the Holy Spirit). So in the event of Katrina, there might be some souls (hopefully not of course) who would argue, "Well, I tithed this month already," when in fact God, via their conscience is saying, "Dig a bit deeper, give a little more, this time."

Willing, humble hearts.

However, I would think that if one is used to giving quietly and anonymously, and an event comes up (charity fundraiser) that is designed to generate noise and attention (to further the giving), giving in such cases would not violate that scripture.

JLP said...

I take the scripture seriously. I think the only one besides yourself and your spouse who should know how much you give is God. Otherwise, you run the risk of giving for the wrong reasons.

JLP

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.