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Several Christmases ago, my wife (then fiancée) and I took in a play at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa. It was opening night for the theater’s twenty-fifth annual staging of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Even though I knew the story line backward and forward, I still thrilled at Ebenezer Scrooge’s moment of conversion—when he wakes up, realizes it’s Christmas day, and trades in his miserly ways for a joyful generosity.
During intermission, I got another glimpse of generosity in action. Like all theaters, SCR is funded by two sources: ticket sales and voluntary donations. One wall of the theater lobby proudly displayed the names of various Orange County notables who have donated money to SCR. As I looked at those names, I began to ponder how exhilarating it would be to look at the wall and see my name upon it: “George P. Wood, Extremely Wealthy Guy Whose Money Single-handedly Keeps the Actors Employed.”
I don’t know whether a desire for recognition motivated any of SCR’s patrons. I only know that such a desire lurks inside of me. Does it lurk inside you? It certainly motivated many of Jesus’ contemporaries.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” Jesus said. “If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 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 men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6.1–4).
Reading this passage, I ask myself three questions: (1) Am I giving to the needy? (2) What is my motivation for doing so? And (3) what reward will I receive for my generosity? We’ll look at question 1 tomorrow, but today, focus on questions 2 and 3.
What is my motivation for giving to the needy? Jesus offers two possible motivations: to be seen by men and to be seen by God. In the former case, we give because we want others to know that we are givers. We want others to think of us as rich and generous. In the latter case, we give because we want to please God. For Jesus, these motivations are mutually exclusive.
And they lead to two different rewards. The person who gives in order to be seen by men receives his reward “in full.” He achieves a philanthropic reputation in this life, but that’s it. The person who gives secretly, however, receives a divine reward in this life and the life to come. Others may not know him, but God knows him. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?