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

Alms are something we give to the poor in order to relieve them of their distress. The word “alms” derives from the Old English “almesse.” This word, in turn, originates from the Greek word eleemosune, meaning mercy or pity. Although mercy and pity start in the heart, they do not stop there. If someone has an attitude of mercy or pity in the heart, he will also manifest that mercy or pity in gracious giv­ing to relieve the poor and needy.

That is the reason Jesus talks about alms, not just as something one feels or thinks, but as something one does: “When thou doest alms . . . .” In other words, faith doesn’t stay bound up in our hearts; faith shows itself in deeds of mercy and showing of pity to those in need.

Notice, too, that Jesus says, “When thou doest alms . . . .” He assumes that every believer will show himself merciful. It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. This duty is clear from the rest of Scripture: “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother” (Deut. 15:7). “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Do we show pity to those in need? Does our faith manifest itself in doing outward works of mercy? Especially that ought to be evident in the church. But, even outside the church, if someone who is truly needy crosses our path, we ought to help him in Christ’s name.

Instead of giving an exhortation about doing alms, Jesus rather instructs His disciples about how alms ought to be given: “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” (Matt. 6:1). Jesus would have us avoid doing alms out in the open where men can see us. The last thing we ought to seek is to draw attention to ourselves: “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” (Matt. 6:2). It is possible that some people in those days actually sounded trumpets and held great ceremonies when they showed mercy upon the poor and needy. Maybe the excuse was that sounding a trumpet would provide a way to alert the needy so they could come and receive a benefit from the giver. No matter, Jesus says, do not do alms that way; rather, make it so that your displays of mercy and pity are kept hidden.

Why does Jesus tell us to do alms in secret? Because He would have us consider our motives.

Frequently, the only thing that distinguishes a praiseworthy work from a horrible sin is the motive behind the act. For example, the motive might be the only thing that distinguishes a prayer that is pleasing to God and one that He finds an abomination. A wicked unbeliever might pray a beautiful prayer with the motive of scoring political points; such a prayer is an abomination to God (cf. Prov. 28:9). On the other hand, a sincere believer seeking the glory of God might utter the exact same prayer; his prayer will be pleas­ing to God. Such is the case also with the showing of mercy and pity; our motives matter. Jesus would have us examine our motives for doing alms.

In the first place, Jesus points at the wrong motive of wanting to be seen by others: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them….” Don’t try to get the attention of others. That’s what hypocrites do; they plan their apparent good works in order to obtain the glory and applause of others.

The very fact that Jesus addresses His disciples regarding the doing of alms shows that every child of God struggles with the wrong motivation for his good works. We want others to praise us. Maybe that at­titude shows up when we have the opportunity to help a needy person who doesn’t show much, if any, appre­ciation for the help we give. It is hard to help that kind of person. But if we examine our motives, we see that part of the reason it is so hard to help them is that we want some recognition from them that we have exerted ourselves on their behalf. In other words, we want some applause, be it ever so slight.

Maybe we contribute to the church in some way and then complain because nobody recognizes us for our efforts: “Not even one person said thank you.” Again, we are guilty of seeking the applause of others. If nobody is going to applaud us, then we are not going to waste our time doing those things.

That is exactly the kind of thing Jesus warns us against. “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them . . . .” Whenever we see that sin­ful attitude rearing its ugly head, we need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.

Examining our motives can be difficult. On the one hand, we might so focus on our sinful motives that we refuse to see any good motives in our deeds. As a result, we count the alms deeds we have done as completely sinful, with no good in them whatsoever. Now, it may be that we have had utterly wicked and selfish motives for showing mercy and pity; we ought to repent of such mo­tives. However, if we have shown mercy and pity from hearts that truly seek to honor God, we should not be ashamed to acknowledge it. If we say we have no good motives whatsoever, in effect we are denying God’s work of regeneration in our hearts.

On the other hand, we might so focus on our good motives that we fail to see any sinful motives polluting our alms deeds. We imagine our good work is well nigh perfect. In effect, this attitude denies that we still have a sinful nature that pollutes even our best works. A proper examination of our motives will recognize both the evil fruit that arises from our old natures as well as the good fruit that arises from faith.

Not only must we avoid doing good works to be seen by others; Jesus goes one step further: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matt. 6:3).

Normally, our right and left hands work together. We would expect, therefore, that one hand would be aware of what the other hand is doing. But, Jesus says, Do not tell your left hand about the good works of your right hand. Why would we want to do that? Because we want our left hand to pat us on the back while our right hand does the alms. In other words, do not dwell on your acts of mercy, because the more you think about them, the more likely it is that spiritual pride will manifest itself. That’s a real danger. For example, when we start taking note of how much we ourselves help out in the church and how little others do, we are feeding our spiritual pride. That’s exactly what Jesus warns against. Guard yourselves against spiritual pride.

What should be our main concern when we do works of mercy? That we do them before our heavenly Father: “That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Fa­ther which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:4). Whatever we do should be kept hidden so that only the Father sees our deeds.

Our motivation for doing good works should go back to the fact that God is our heavenly Father for Christ’s sake. God has done such great things for us. He showed mercy and pity to us when He sent His only begotten Son to suffer the Hell that we deserved. He showed mercy and pity to us when He sent His Holy Spirit to give us new life in Jesus Christ. God’s mercies toward us are new every morning as He blesses us with all spiritual blessings. Are we thankful to Him for His mercy and pity? Is it our desire to glorify the God of our salvation? There are times when we don’t feel like helping a brother or sister in need. When that happens, we need to remind ourselves of God’s mercy to us and the thankfulness we owe to Him.

We ought to see in ourselves a sincere desire to glorify our heavenly Father in everything we do. To be sure, our desire to glorify God is weak. Sometimes we have to do everything in our power just to show a small mercy to someone in need. But the fact that we are torn between the desire to glorify God and the desire to live for ourselves shows that there is a battle going on between the old man and the new.

Depending on what motivates our deeds of mercy and pity, there will be a reward.

Of hypocrites, who do good works only to be seen of men, or to pat themselves on the back, Jesus says, “They have their reward” (Matt. 6:2). But the question is, How will they be rewarded? If they do merciful deeds and good works to receive the applause of men, they will receive the applause of men. If they do their alms deeds so that they can pat themselves on the back, they will walk away and say to themselves, “What a great person I am compared to so many others.” But that’s all they will receive; they will not receive any good reward from the Father.

In contrast, when we do our alms in secret, with no desire for the applause of others and no de­sire to pat ourselves on the back, then the Father “which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:4).

To be clear, when Jesus speaks of a reward, He is not condon­ing a mercenary attitude in our hearts. We must never think to ourselves, “Surely, after all that I’ve done, God owes it to me to spare me from this or that trouble.” Or, “He owes it to me to give me this or that.” That is what mercenaries do; they work for some sort of payback according to their own desires. The minute we think to ourselves God owes us something, we have gone astray.

Even though we cannot merit anything from God, He will reward our works of mercy. He will reward us in the first place with His public approval. On the judgment day, before the whole world, He will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He will reward us, too, with the joy of seeing His work being accom­plished in and through us. Lastly, when we examine ourselves and see His gracious work, we can know that God has been merciful and pitiful towards us in the past and therefore that He will continue to bless us openly with His care in the future.