“When You Give To the Needy” Part 1
A Study Of Matthew 6
By G. Steve Kinnard
We find ourselves at the beginning of the holiday season. First we commemorate Thanksgiving, where we focus on our blessings. Then we celebrate Christmas, where we rejoice that God sent his Son into the world.
During this season of the year, our minds are often drawn to people who are less fortunate than us. That’s a good thing. But, as disciples of Jesus, healing the hurts of people ought not be a seasonal activity. It ought to be a daily mindset.
What does Jesus have to say about giving to the needy? There are many places to turn in the gospels to answer this question. One place to turn is the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Some would look at Matthew 6:1-4 and stop there. Jesus does teach directly on the disciple’s obligation to give to the needy in these verses. However, in Matthew 6:19-34 Jesus continues his thoughts on giving to the needy by helping us with our attitude about money, possessions, and things, and by teaching us what our focus in life should be—God’s kingdom and his righteousness. So it is best to consider these passages together, which is what I will do in this series of articles.
In his sermon, Jesus begins to define his community. He defines what it means to be his follower, his disciple. So, if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, you need to know his sermon through and through, from the “Blessed are” in 5:3 to the “with a great crash” in 7:27.
What has happened up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount? In chapter 5, Jesus listed the beatitudes, compared his community with salt and light, and then redefined the law by saying, “You have heard it was said to people long ago … but now I say to you …”
In chapter 6, Jesus moves to a new topic—What does it mean to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom? Jesus focuses on three actions and two attitudes.
What are the three actions?
- Giving to the needy
What are the two attitudes?
- An attitude of caution toward money, possessions, and things.
- An attitude of single-minded focus on God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
I think it is safe to say that within evangelical “Christianity” most churches only teach about two of these five aspects of discipleship. Most churches teach about prayer. And, it has become popular recently in churches to teach about giving to the needy.
The most neglected practice of evangelicals would be fasting. When is the last time you heard a sermon or a lesson on fasting? Also, the Christian perspective toward money and material possessions is rarely discussed. Some churches stress the need for a single-minded focus on God’s kingdom and his righteousness, but I wouldn’t say the majority of evangelical churches make this their focus.
Yet, Jesus did not distinguish between these actions and attitudes in his sermon. He expected his followers to practice giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. He also expected his disciples to show the proper caution toward money, possessions, and things, and to have a singular focus on his kingdom and righteousness. This demonstrates how modern “Christianity” has gotten away from following the teachings of Jesus. We must be careful to continue to explore the teachings of Jesus and practice what he taught.
These five expectations of Matthew 6 are “kingdom” expectations. Jesus meant for them to be practiced by his followers in the first century and in the twenty-first century. Although we live in a different culture from first-century disciples, our hearts should be the same as first-century disciples. In this way, we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world just like they were. Jesus expects us to be different from the world and different from other religious people. He expects his community to be unique.
Jesus doesn’t want us to play church. He doesn’t want us to be another denomination that looks nothing like the church of the Bible. He calls us to be his “kingdom” people and to live distinctly and differently from the world and from denominational churches. How can we do that? By practicing these three acts and two attitudes.
In this article, we will focus on action 1. Why? Because I’m attempting to answer the question—What does Jesus have to say about giving to the needy? (If you want a more detailed discussion of prayer and fasting, please see my book, The Way of the Heart of Jesus, The Inward Journey.)
Let’s begin with Matthew 6:1-4,
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Verse 1 is an important verse because it prefaces everything that follows concerning giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. Jesus says we must practice our righteousness not to be seen by others. Instead, there should be a distinct attribute of anonymity when we give, fast, or pray.
What is our secret life like? What do we do in secret?
What we do in secret is revealing. Do we shop in secret, not wishing to reveal to our spouses what we are spending our money on? Do we eat in secret, now wanting others to know the decadent calories we are consuming? Do we log onto the computer in secret, not wanting our spouse to know what we are viewing on the Internet? Do we drink in secret? Do we binge in secret?
Jesus says there are three acts of righteousness we ought to do in secret—give to the needy, pray, and fast. Do we give to the less fortunate and make sure we don’t broadcast it to anyone? Do we sneak away to pray? Do we fast without talking about it? What is our secret life like? What we do in secret says much about who we are and what our character is like.
In verses 2-4, there are at least three points we can learn about giving to the needy from these verses.
First, notice that Jesus begins with “So when you give to the needy.” Jesus does not command his disciples to give to the needy; he expects them to. Jesus expects his followers to practice certain acts of righteousness—giving, praying, and fasting. Jesus expects us to give to the needy.
Many of you know that my Dad passed in September. God blessed me with a wonderful Dad. He seldom commanded me to do anything. Instead, he taught me what was expected of me in our family and in life. He expected me to respect Jesus, my Mom, my teachers, and my coaches. He expected me to go to church with him and the family every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. He expected me to work hard and be responsible. And I did all those things because he was my Dad, and he loved me and I love him.
Jesus expects us to have a heart for the poor and to give to the needy. It’s who he was, and since it’s who he was, he expects his followers to be like him.
Second, Jesus expects his disciples to practice these acts in secrecy, not with trumpet blasts and huge fanfare, but in a clandestine manner, so that God alone knows who is giving to the needy, praying, and fasting.
How secretly? So covertly that your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing. This is a great image. It’s a radical image. It is physically impossible for the left hand not to know what the right is doing. The brain keeps track of both appendages. Jesus is not speaking literally here. He is painting an image that makes the hearer (or the reader) stop and think. So take a moment and reflect on this—Do you give to the needy, pray, and fast to be seen by people? Or, do you do your acts of righteousness in secret?
Please allow me to use my Dad for another illustration. My Dad wasn’t rich. As a child, I would overhear my Mom and Dad discussion finances, and I would get concerned. I would ask for things, like a new pair of shoes, and my Mom would say “What’s wrong with your old shoes?” What she meant was, “There’s nothing wrong with you old shoes so don’t ask for new shoes.” Sometime she would add, “We can’t afford new shoes.” So, I got a job to save up to buy some new shoes. So there were underlying financial concerns in our family. But every Sunday at church, when the contribution plate was passed, my Dad would drop a check into the plate.
Quite often I would ask Dad, “How much did you give?” He always gave me the same answer, “Steve, the Bible says the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing.”
I’d reply, “Dad, I don’t get that. How can your left hand not know what your right is doing?”
He would answer, “It is Jesus’ way of saying that what you give is between you and God. What we give, we give in secret. So I’m keeping what I give between me and God.”
That was that. At least for that Sunday. The next Sunday I’d ask the same question and get the same answer. I never knew how much my Dad gave, but I did know that whatever he gave, we couldn’t afford it. His gift was a sacrifice. Which is what giving should be.
Third, Jesus speaks specifically of “giving to the needy.” The word is eleemosyne. It is based on eleos, which means “mercy.” Rudolf Bultmann notes, “In the NT ἐλεημοσύνη (eleemosyne) is found only in the sense of ‘benevolent activity,’ and always to the poor (‘almsgiving’).” So it is clear what Jesus meant here. He meant for his disciples to help the poor.
Sometimes we lose sight of the poor. That’s easy to do because the poor tend to get marginalized in our society. Allow me to share with you the words of a welfare Mother in Tennessee. Her words will help us see what it means to be poor.
Written by a welfare mother in Tennessee
You say you want to know what it’s like to be poor? Well, you’ve come to the right person. But you won’t enjoy my definition. …
I’m dirty. I’m smelly. And I have no proper underwear beneath this rotting dress. I don’t know about you, but the stench of my teeth makes me half sick. They’re decaying but they’ll never be fixed. That takes money. …
Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirty and illness-stained mattress—a hard, lumpy mattress. Sheets? They have long since been used for diapers, for there are no real diapers here, either.
That smell? That “other” smell? You know what it is—that, plus sour milk and spoiled food. Sometimes it’s mixed with the stench of onions cooked too often. Onions are cheap. …
Poverty is being tired—dog tired all the time. I can’t remember when I wasn’t tired. When my last baby came, they told me at the hospital that I had chronic anemia caused by a poor diet, a bad case of worms, and the need for a corrective operation. …
Poverty is dirt. You may say, in your clean clothes and coming from your clean house, “Anybody can be clean.” Let me explain housekeeping with no money. For breakfast, I give my children grits with no margarine, or cornbread made without eggs or oleo. For one thing, that kind of food doesn’t use up many dishes. What dishes there are, I wash in cold water. No soap. Even the cheapest soap has to be saved for washing the old sheets I use for the baby’s diapers.
Look at these cracked, red hands. Once I saved up for two months to buy a jar of Vaseline for my hands and for the baby’s diaper rash. When I had the money and went to buy the Vaseline, the price had gone up two cents, and I didn’t have another two cents. Every day I have to decide whether I can bear to put these cracked, sore hands into that cold water and strong soap. Why don’t I use hot water? It takes money to get something with which to heat it. Hot water is a luxury. We don’t have luxuries.
Poverty is asking for help. Have you ever had to swallow what pride you had left and ask for help, knowing your children will suffer more if you don’t get it? …
Poverty is looking into a future devoid of hope. Your children wouldn’t play with my children; you wouldn’t allow it. My boys will someday turn into boys who steal to get what they need. I can already see them behind prison bars. … My daughter? She’ll have a life just like mine, unless she’s pretty enough to become a prostitute. I’d be smart to wish her dead already. …
Poverty is an acid that eats into pride until pride is burned out. It is a chisel that chips at honor until honor is pulverized. You might do something if you were in my situation—for a week or a month. Would you do it year after year, getting nowhere, going nowhere? … I did not come from another place, and I did not come from another time. I’m here now, and there are others like me all around you.
Helping the needy should be a characteristic of disciples of Jesus. As Jesus had a heart for the poor, his followers ought to have a heart for the poor. Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider state, “Jesus speaks in vv. 2–4 of almsgiving in order to characterize the disciple’s true piety. What is decisive is sincerity of intention expressing itself in the spontaneity of the good deed not done for the sake of theatrical effect.” Notice he mixes the concepts intentionality and spontaneity together. This idea is expressed by Paul in Galatians 6:9-10, “9Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Paul mixes, “As we have opportunity,” spontaneity, with “do good to all people,” intentionality.
With intentional spontaneity, Jesus met the needs of the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and the demonized. In Mark 1, the whole town of Capernaum showed up at Peter’s house with their sick family members, and Jesus healed them. In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus fed five thousand hungry people who were following him and listening to his teachings. In Mark 8, Jesus fed four thousand. When John the Baptist was in prison, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the true Messiah. Jesus told John’s disciples to go back and tell John, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22, ESV).
Jesus was known for his compassionate heart. Jesus gave to the needy. That’s who he was. And, he expects his followers to be like him.
So, as we enter this Thanksgiving/Christmas season, let’s be grateful for everything that God has given us, and let’s make sure we give to those who are less fortunate. But let’s also remember, the expectation to give to the needy is not a seasonal expectation for those who follow Jesus. Jesus expects his followers to spontaneously and intentionally meet the needs of those who are needy throughout the year. Perhaps the Thanksgiving/Christmas season should be looked at as a good time to double up on our giving to the poor. Then, throughout the rest of the year, we can look for opportunities to give to those who are less fortunate.
 The full title is The Way of the Heart of Jesus. The Inward Journey: Prayer, Fasting, Meditation, Bible Study. It can be purchased through Illumination Publishers at 832-559-3658 or http://www.ipibooks.com.
 Rudolf Bultmann, “Ἔλεος, Ἐλεέω, Ἐλεήμων, Ἐλεημοσύνη, Ἀνέλεος, Ἀνελεήμων,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 486.
“Poverty” was written by a welfare mother in Tennessee. It is quoted by C. E. Jackson in Stan Mooneyham, What Do You Say to a Hungry World? in Christian Herald, January 1968. It can also be found in G. Steve Kinnard’s Jesus and the Poor.