“That Thine Alms May Be in Secret”

Brant Gardner

Jesus does not condemn the act of giving alms—in fact, he expects it. Furthermore, alms-giving brings a reward. In most of the ancient world, religion was seen as a type of bargain or contract with the gods (or God, in Israel’s case), initiated by the worshipper who desired a boon. Jesus thus assures his listeners of the relationship between act and reward. What is important is the relationship of the actor and rewarder.

Being seen of “men” obviously means being seen by the community. In English, “hypocrites” connotes insincerity or otherwise questionable motives. But the Greek word hupokrites translated as “hypocrites” simply meant actors, literally those who acted on a stage. The context supplies our current reasons for finding impure motives in their action. It is their motivation (to be seen performing acts of charity), not the acts themselves, that Jesus rebukes. The proper way to demonstrate this type of religious piety is as a private act, possibly known only to God. Those who act on stage so that “men” see their actions receive the reward of being seen. Acting in private where only God sees brings a reward from God.

Apparently trumpets were not blown in Palestine when alms were deposited in the synagogue poor box, but they were during special festivals that included the distribution of the alms and of food. The trumpet, of course, called the public’s attention to the act, and the implication is therefore clear that the “actor” was on stage to be seen providing alms.

Book of Mormon Context: These Jewish practices in first-century Palestine have no known counterpart in New World. A poor box works in a money economy, but not in a barter economy like that of 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. Ostentatious alms-giving stresses the difference between the person who is able to give and the one who needs to receive. Public giving makes a social hierarchy visible. Thus, this issue continues the Book of Mormon problem of exalting oneself above another. Creating and maintaining social hierarchies was a recurring problem for the Nephites—one of their sorest temptations. Jesus’s saying reinforce the need for social egalitarianism that was the Nephite ideal. (See 2 Nephi, Part 1: Context, Chapter 2, “Overview of 2 Nephi.”)

Comparison: The 3 Nephi redaction alters the audience from second person singular to second person plural. This makes sense in English as Jesus is speaking to a large group. The King James Version uses pronouns (“thee/thou”) that are typical of intimate discourse between two people. Yet in Palestine, Jesus was also speaking to a large group. This change simply makes the pronouns fit better with the known context.

Therefore when ye shall do yourthou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before youthee, 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)

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5