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Matthew vi. 1—4.
“ TAKE HEED THAT YE DO NOT YOUR ALMS BEFORE MEN,
TO BE SEEN OF THEM ; OTHERWISE YE HAVE NO RE-
Motive is the life and glory of action. If that be corrupt, every stream which issues from it will be worse than useless; it will be noxious and pestiferous. Thus, many a transaction, highly commendable in itself, has been an abomination in the sight of God, because of the contaminated source from whence it has flowed. And this is particularly the case with religious duties, when they are performed for the sake of human applause, or from the hope of making atonement to the Righteous Governor of the universe, for the violation of his laws.
The words of my text are in close connection with the remarks of our Lord, in the latter half of the preceding chapter. Hitherto this Divine Prophet has animadverted on the false principles of the Scribes and Pharisees,these determined enemies to the truth. Now He begins a series of observations on their sinful conduct; for bad principles will lead to bad conduct. According to our faith will, in general, be our practice; and when men willingly embrace what is wrong, because they dislike what is right, we cannot wonder at any other sins they may commit. It was, therefore, necessary to show them the close connection between their doctrines and their deeds; and, having corrected the former, to correct the latter likewise. To this end, the Saviour speaks of the improper manner in which the whole body of the people, through the influence of their blind instructors, had been accustomed to perform the duties of religion; and He directs his audience how to observe them for the time to come.
In the illustration of the subject, for the purpose of mutual edification, let us notice,
I. THE DUTY TO WHICH OUR LORD REFERS.
“ Take heed that ye do not your alms before men to be seen of them.” And again—“Therefore, when thou doest thine alms;" from which you will learn, that He is giving us cautions and directions on the important duty of charitable donations, — gifts purely eleemosynary and compassionate.
The word “alms,” which you read in the first verse, in some ancient copies is rendered “ righteousness ;” and the adoption of this term is preferable, inasmuch as it saves the whole passage from a tautology, which otherwise disfigures it. Besides, as our Lord is discoursing on those virtues in which our righteousness must “exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees,” it is biglily probable that he would use this term. Viewed in this
light, which seems the correct one, we are to consider it as comprising all religious actions; and as a general precept against every degree of vain glory and ostentation in its performance. A caution, which the vanity of the human breast renders too necessary, even as it regards the best of men. In the second verse, where the word “alms” occurs, it is allowed, by general consent, to mean charitable gifts to the poor and necessitous. It is, therefore, to be considered as the first act of righteousness which He mentions, and which is a material article in the catalogue of those Christian duties which the Great Teacher of our divine religion requires us to observe. He does not, indeed, give us a direct precept as to its discharge; that He has done already in the forty-second verse of the preceding chapter: and assuming, therefore, in this passage, that his disciples would obey the precept, He legislates, with supreme and underived authority, as to the spirit in which it must be done. I hope it is quite unnecessary to insist, at this time, on the obligation we are individually under to distribute a portion of that substance which the providence of God has given us, to the relief of his suffering family: you have been often reminded of it from this pulpit. You must, indeed, be lamentably ignorant of the whole genius of revelation, and of the religion of Christ in particular, not to know that it is pressed upon your benevolent attention by the most powerful and affecting motives. Of a large proportion of the present audience, I feel assured that
a willing mind, according as God hath prospered you,” and of others I will not speak. They must "give an account of their stewardship” to the Great Proprietor of all they possess another day! But covetousness is the curse of the soul, and the church, where it prevails. It is a sin that lurks under so many specious disguises, and assumes so many flattering names of prudence-economy-good management-foresight--carefulness
-frugality—that it is with great difficulty ever detected. And while many are excommunicated from fellowship with the saints, at the sacramental feast, on account of crimes over which we weep, the covetous professor, whose conduct has made the heart of many a faithful pastor bleed, is allowed to remain ! Well, thus much we know, and thus far I will be bold to remind you, in the solemn language of an apostle, “that neither thieves, nor covetous, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God," any more than “ drunkards, revilers, or fornicators."*
From the connection of the word in the second verse, with the general precept in the first, we learn this fact, that the gift of “alms” is a deed of justice as well as mercy. And is not this reasonable and obvious ? Have not the poor a just claim to a share of the abundance of the rich? Have they not the same Father in heaven as we have? And is not the disparity which appears in earthly possessions, designed to teach us that those who have much are to spare a portion to those who have little? However the covetous idolater may regard the sentiment as legal, it stands in the book of the law of God—that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”+ Pour your silver and gold into the treasury of God, for the diffusion of his knowledge among those “who are ready to perish ;” but let not the cry of the destitute and needy be disregarded. With the deepest solicitude for the salvation of the soul, the Lord Jesus blended the most compassionate tenderness for the relief of the body. Shut not your ears, therefore, against the lamentation of the orphan, and the wailing of the widow, “bereaved of the husband of her youth.' Leave not the aged and the dying to pine in anguish,
* I Cor. vi. 10.
+ James i. 27.
unpitied and unfed. Suffer not the hospital for the diseased, and the asylum for the wretched outcast from human society, to fall into desolation, in order that ye might build the temple of the Lord. He asks for no such disproportionate offerings at your hands. Relieve the body that you may benefit the soul.
II. OBSERVE THE EVILS TO BE AVOIDED IN ITS
Those which are specified in the text, and which I have now to consider for our mutual guidance, are—the love of human applause, and an ostentatious notoriety.
First. We are to avoid the desire of human applause, in these deeds of benevolence and justice. “ Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them.” The word “seen” is very significant, and alludes to the eager gaze of the theatrical crowd, whose worthless admiration the obsequious performer strives to obtain. Against such a motive we are here solemnly admonished. Not that we are to be ashamed of doing that which we ought to do before men: “ for they are to see our good works, that they might glorify our Father which is in heaven;" but it is one thing to do them in their presence, that they may be constrained by the example to honour God by doing the same, and another to do them for the miserable purpose of their applauding ourselves. There are some cases in which it would be sinful cowardice to attempt to conceal a religious action. It would amount to a tacit admission, either that the Christian religion was untenable, and disgraceful to the man who espoused it; or that the individual had not courage to profess it before others. And take whichever alternative you may, it would be reproachful in the extreme. But we are not to assume, like the actor on a stage, a character which does not belong to us, in order to obtain the empty