Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth
Isaiah 64; Matthew 6:1-4
There are many people who do good.
Which is good.
And there are many people who care nothing for any reputation for doing good.
Which is also good.
But seldom do both qualities coincide in one person.
And that’s bad.
In this world there are those who do good – and don’t they know it! – and those who don’t do good – and couldn’t care less. But what a rare thing it is, to meet a person who does good and couldn’t care less about it? Jesus says, that’s the Christian.
In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus has just been talking about the law – filled full and accomplished by Himself. He was addressing moral issues like anger, lust, marriage, forgiveness. Now in chapter 6 He turns to the subject of religious practices.
All religions have something to say about alms-giving (v1-4), prayer (v5-15) and fasting (v16-18). But according to Jesus, there’s a major problem with our religious efforts: Pious folk do things “that they may have glory of men.” (Matthew 6:2); “that they may be seen of men” (Matthew 6:5); “that they may appear among men” (Matthew 6:16).
And this isn’t only true for traditionally religious types. Recently I was walking through Brighton – seat of Britain’s only Green MP – and I came across a graph that was painted down the length of the street. It charted the CO2 emissions of the houses on that street as compared to the national average. Needless to say, these environmentally conscious citizens were vastly more ecologically righteous than most. And there it was in yellow paint, for all to see.
There is something deep within our humanity that takes “doing good” and makes it an occasion to boast in ourselves. And suddenly, doing good isn’t the issue – we are.
So Jesus lifts the lid on the do-gooders’ dirty little secret. Do-gooders don’t do good to do good. They do good to be seen to be doing good. And Jesus says, Christians beware:
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
These hypocrites cut a ridiculous figure – commissioning a trumpet fanfare to publicise their offerings! They want the “glory of men”. And if that’s what they seek, that will be their reward. And only that. Our unseen Father remains unimpressed.
But there’s another kind of giving which is so self-forgetful it’s as though the hand that gives is acting completely independently. We “let not our left hand know what our right hand doeth.” That is, we do good, but we don’t connect it to our selves – to our sense of identity and worth and “glory.” Our giving is like an involuntary nose scratch, it’s just something we do. It draws no attention to itself. It doesn’t attract the attention of others, and it doesn’t even attract our own attention.
Such giving is not even an occasion for private enjoyment – you know the sort of thing: “Others will never know but I can always take pride in my anonymous offering. In ten years time no-one will know, but I will be content with the fact I did my bit.” No, not even that. Not our head, not our heart, nor even our other hand will reflect on the act. We will just do good. No fanfare, no smugness, no self-congratulation, no appeasement of conscience. We’ll just do good and move on.
How is that possible? Jesus is describing an incredible level of contentment. What He’s describing is just not natural. Because we are, by nature, approval seeking sponges. We need to be seen and rewarded. Jesus knows that. Which is why He doesn’t tell us “Don’t be so needy, Don’t let other people tell you your worth, Just get on with it.” No Jesus knows that we can’t bestow worth on ourselves. He knows that we need a verdict to come from outside ourselves, to tell us “I see you and I love you.”
And so Jesus does not prohibit doing good “to be seen”. He prohibits doing good “to be seen by men.” Instead we do it knowing that “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” We can’t escape doing good for an audience. Jesus says, Switch your audience.
Only the person certain of their position in Christ could ever live like this. But if we do know our adoption by the Father, our union with Jesus, our anointing with the Spirit, we can walk out into the world in the sunshine of heavenly approval and simply live.
Jesus began His ministry hearing the Father’s benediction: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) And He travelled through the world, the freest man who ever lived. He never pulled Peter to one side saying “How do you think that talk went down? I think some of them were unhappy with how I ended the parable…” He never reminded His grumbling disciples “Hey, can I have a bit of respect here, do you have any idea what I’m doing for you?” There are no fanfares or ego trips. He just does good, forsaking the approval of men but knowing the smile of His Father.
That’s the life He gives to us. He’s not calling us to more giving, praying and fasting. He’s inviting us into a whole new paradigm, in which giving, praying and fasting aren’t the point. And we are not the point. Our Father is. And the goodness of the deed is. But our selves and our “glory” is cleared out of the way.
It is in Jesus, and in His Sonship before the Father, that we find true freedom from status anxiety. We’re free from the need to prove ourselves, from the glory of men. And this freedom is a freedom for the life of the Son – a life of giving where our left hand doesn’t even know what our right hand is doing.