“Take Heed That Ye Do Not Your Alms Before Men to Be Seen of Them”

Brant Gardner

There are several elements of this example that should be examined. First, there is the fact that alms are given, and given freely. This is not condemned, and is actually given as expected. Secondly, this act of giving alms does garner a reward. In most of the ancient world, religion was seen as a type of bargain or contract with the gods, or God, the in case of Israel. In the pagan world, sacrifices were frequently given as an initiation of a desired “contract” with a god. The offeror made the overture sacrifice so that the god would perform some desired action in return. There was a distinct understanding that the acts of religious piety would result in a favorable return act from the gods. In this case, the act should yield a reward. This saying assures the reader that there is an act/reward relationship. Jesus counts on the assumption that a reward follows the act. What he focuses on is not the act/reward, but the relationship of the actor and rewardor.

The second set of terms is hypocrites/men. Of the two, the men is the most familiar usage because it means just what we assume it means. The men is the community. The word that can cause problems is hypocrites. In English this word connotes one whose moral reasons for acting in a certain way are questionable. The Greek word that is transliterated as hypocrites simply meant an actor, literally one who acted on a stage. In the original context, these were not people singled out for their suspicious motivations, but for placing themselves on a stage. Of course the implication that their motivations were less than religiously pure comes from the context of the saying, so it is no wholly incorrect. It does, however, alter the original understanding if the emphasis is on the stage and the showiness, and that it is the showiness that is being contrasted with the proper way to show this type of religious piety.

The showiness before men is implicitly contrasted with a private act before God. Jesus is saying that the change of “theater” alters the giver of the reward. If we act on stage so that men see our actions, we are rewarded by the men who see. If we act in private where God sees but men do not, then it will be God who does the rewarding.

There is no known association of blowing the trumpet when bringing alms to the poor’s box in the synagogue. (John Lightfoot. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmiud and Hebraica. Hendrickson Publishers, 1989, 2:139-40)  This comment appears rather to speak of the custom of blowing trumpets in the festivals of distribution. (Robert Guelich. A Foundation for Understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Word Publishing, Dallas. 1982, p. 278). The point of the trumpet, of course, was to announce the act to the public, and the clear implication was that the actors on the stage would call attention to themselves for their ability to provide the alms.

Book of Mormon context: The specifics of this saying depend upon details of first-century Jewish practice that are not specifically known for the New World. The nature of poverty in the New World along with the nature of economics suggests that a poor’s box would not have been used. Such a collection point works in a monetary economy, but not in the barter economy as was found in the New World.

Nevertheless, even though the specific example is culture-bound to first-century Israel, the problem it discusses was relevant and extant in the Book of Mormon. One of the problems created by the ostentatious giving is the very obvious difference between the person who is able to give and the one who needs to receive. The public giving creates a situation where a social hierarchy is made visible and reinforced. This is the continuing Book of Mormon issue with one who exalts himself above another. The issue of creating social hierarchies was a large problem for the Nephites, and one of their sorest temptations. This saying would be applicable to them in the context of reinforcing the need for the principle of social egalitarianism that was the Nephite ideal.

Textual: The changes in the 3 Nephi redaction serve to change the verse from the 2nd person singular to the second person plural. This makes sense in for English as we know that Jesus is speaking to a large group. The KJV is reproducing a more intimate discourse that appears to be between Jesus and one other person. However, clearly the New Testament context is a large gathering as in the New World. This change simply makes the more modern grammar fit with the known context.

Matthew 6:2

2 Therefore when [ye shall do your] (thou doest thine) alms, do not sound a trumpet before [you] (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.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon