“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.” – Matthew 6:1
The text is one of the well known passages from the Sermon on the Mount. The Word is the book of life, given that it may be for us the guide of life. The Psalmist writes, “How sweet are thy words unto my tastes yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.” The Word is here pictured not only as a light of the mind, but also as cherished in the heart. The truths of the Word may be in our minds, yet if they are not received in the heart, they will not be wrought out in our lives. The Word should be in the heart. The Lord in His love and mercy speaks through His Word and when the Lord speaks to His children, how gladly should He expect them to listen and to treasure His words!
In the present age of the world, because of spiritual ignorance and because of worldly interests there is not that love of the Scriptures. Just as the scribes and Pharisees overlaid the Scriptures with their traditions, so the Christian Church in its synods, councils, and hierarchies began to throw over the sacred pages the dark shadow of personal opinions and preferences. Now, since the opening of the Word, the true meaning of the Scriptures can be seen – that they are the eternal truth given for the eternal welfare of mankind – and that no part of them can ever become outgrown or obsolete. The Word is the everlasting Gospel. It is a revelation whose power to help and save will never pass away.
This is true of our text. We should know that to do alms, although in its most limited sense it means to give to the poor, in a broader sense includes all the uses we perform to each other. Thus it applies to the whole life. Little children of kindly impulses, when their feelings are touched by the needs of others, offer what they have and do what they can without any thought of merit to themselves. But they do not advance very far in life before the idea of merit creeps in, even if it is not suggested by unwise praise from older friends. There is a right kind of praise which comes from the love of the good done and which encourages the love of doing good. But unwise praise withdraws the attention and the affection from the good work and fastens it upon the person who does it. And in so far as this is the case, the pure enjoyment in the work for the good that it does ceases and its place is taken by selfish pride and the love of praise. If men and women could develop from childhood to maturity without the alloy of reflection upon self – even the most secret reflection – we should have upon this earth the innocent and happy life of heaven.
But, unregenerate and perverse as we are, none of us comes to maturity without some selfish pride and the love of praise. And if this desire for honor and for recognition of merit is allowed to grow and is not held in check by self-discipline or by the discipline of disappointments and mortifications, it becomes an insatiable hunger which no honors can satisfy and which can endure no praise of others. And this is the life of hell. No one grows to maturity without having his heart embittered in some degree in this way, and his life may be made very unhappy without his seeing the cause of it or knowing how to remedy it.
It is to point out the cause and to give the means of relief that the Lord teaches us to take heed to our works that they are not done before men to be seen of then; that is, to observe carefully whether we are working for the love of the work or for the approval of men. For slight as the difference may seem to us, the one objective is the source of heavenly joy and the other of infernal torment.
Then the Lord says, “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.” The right hand stands for the act done from affection and the left hand for the act done from the intellect. In so far as we allow our minds to dwell upon the good we do self enters into the work and destroys all the goodness of it. If the alms are done in secret, that is in freedom from display even to our own thought, the Father who seeth in secret gives the open reward of the innocent joy in the life that makes heaven.
There is another duty we are taught to do in secret that our Father may reward us openly, and that is to pray in secret and not that we may be seen of men. We generally think of prayer as a formal petition to the Lord. But in its comprehensive sense prayer means every desire or aspiration of the heart. We should pray not in order to make a display of piety nor for the sake of bringing praise to ourselves. We should pray humbly for the things which will make us more truly the Lord’s disciples. All our words and our aspirations should be guarded, that we may not be insincere nor make a vain display of the truth we believe or of the good we do, for if truth and good are loved only for display, when this return fails – as it always will fail in the end – the truth and good themselves will be repudiated.
In regard to both words and works the Lord is the perfect Example. His purpose was to minister, not to be ministered unto. It was His unselfish love that was the life flowing forth from Him to heal the bodies and souls of men. There was in His life no desire for display or to win regard for Himself. His words concerning alms and prayer He spoke from the fullness of His own experience.
Does it seem that to cease to regard self in what we say and do is too simple a thing to change an unhappy, infernal state to a heavenly state? We shall find that it is not simple. It will require close attention and much effort, because it means changing the quality of every thought, feeling, and deed. There is nothing that makes life unhappy except regard for self and constant sensitiveness to what concerns self, and there is nothing that makes it innocent and joyous but a love that is free from thought of self. Envy of others and disparagement of them, pride and greed, disappointment and wretchedness all proceed from the one. Kindly love, enjoyment in the good that others do, and pleasure in doing good and in speaking helpful truth all proceed from the other. These are the rewards that our Heavenly Father gives openly to those who take heed to do as He says.
Again the Lord says of fasting: “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance… That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret.” By fasting spiritually is meant self-denial, turning away from all pleasures to which we may be inclined which are not good, and compelling ourselves to do that which it is our duty to do. The Lord says the wrong way to fast is to be “of a sad countenance” so that we shall appear unto men to fast, that is, to mourn for the loss of the evils and to desire credit for giving them up. If we do this, we really do not give them up. The love of them is still in our hearts. We grieve for their loss and abstain from them only for the sake of credit in the eyes of our neighbors. And if there is no credit to be obtained and we are thus freed from the restraint of regard for appearances, we shall return to our evils. In works done with a show of self-denial there is neither love nor the happiness of love. There is simply the restraint of one form of self-indulgence for the sake of gratifying a deeper love of self. The true fasting is to do our duty cheerfully, with no regard for the evils given up, and with the sense of glad relief from the burden of them rather than of pride in foregoing them.
The Lord “seeth in secret.” He is present in the secret chambers of the soul, where are the essential ends and motives of all our actions. His ear is in the secret chamber and hears only what is uttered there.
The Psalmist writes: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes… Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.”
The Word is an actual living bond of conjunction between the Lord and men. The statutes of the Lord are the medium of the Lord’s presence and influence. Since they are Divine in their origin and essence, they are the fit and proper receptacles for the Spirit of the Most High. And they are the means of consociation between angels and men. This relation of the Scriptures to the Lord and to heaven is the secret of their marvelous power.
“Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.” When we go to the Scriptures, we go to the Lord Himself, and as we learn and keep His precepts, the Word becomes to us the very lamp of life, the source of all our wisdom and strength, and the one great means of protection against all falsity and evil.
“Who can understand his evils? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.”