While serving as a missionary in the D.R. Congo several years ago with Mission Aviation Fellowship, I remember thinking to myself, “Are the Congolese not aware of Matt 6:3?” The different way in which my fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus collected their offerings brought to the surface the cultural chasm between Western and African Christianity that really bothered me. In fact, I’ve never really gotten over this difference until recently. But let me first explain their egregious and unbiblical practice (please read with sarcasm).
The Congolese Way to Bring an Offering
While in Congo, we attended a Congolese Baptist church in a
growing bush village named Vanga in the western half of the Congo. It was the church for the Baptist Mission station where we lived. During the service when the offering was called, people got up and danced forward (yes, dancing in a Baptist church!), deposited their money in a basket at the front, and then danced back to their seat. Following this, those who were unable to give money danced forward with basketfuls of harvested food.
The Individualistic, Western (= Biblical) Way to Bring an Offering
Upon observing this and feeling quite uncomfortable about the very public giving going on, I couldn’t reconcile this with:
“But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matt 6:3 NET).
The best I could do was to remind myself that the Congolese were giving in a culturally proper way, but the question still lingered.
In the West, a verse like this meshes nicely with our individualistic culture / worldview.
- We pass offering plates, but that can take a while if it’s a large church. It’s not efficient and people can still watch us put or not put money in the plate.
- We have offering boxes at various places for people to give in private, but then people might conveniently “forget.”
- The ultimate combination of efficiency and individualism, however, is the auto-debit (EFT) from a bank account or credit card. I don’t have to think about it and it’s completely private. Now, neither the left nor the right hand knows when I give!
A Ritual Perspective on Giving an Offering
The maxim “actions speak louder than words” highlights one of the significant aspects of ritual studies. That is, what do our actions communicate or express about what we believe?
Looking at the Congolese practice several things emerge:
- giving is a communal act – that is, gifts given derive from personal or family resources, but it is God’s people who rejoice together in His blessing
- joy and remembrance are experienced communally – as the people of God dance their gifts up to the front, there is a visible and tangible joy at what God has provided during the past week
- givers encourage others to faithfulness – as people give, they encourage those in attendance to join in the festivities of the community and become faithful givers themselves
Of course, there are negative aspects to giving in this mode, just like there are with any other. The leadership can keep tabs on who’s not giving and then lay down a heavy guilt trip (which did in fact happen from time to time). This fact, however, highlights a weakness in the leadership not the ritual itself.
Looking at the Western practice, these things emerge:
- giving is a private act – this is viewed as faithfully carrying out Matt 6:3
- joy is experienced personally – unless the pastor draws attention to it (and we have our own way of laying on guilt trips), givers experience the joy of faithfulness privately
- efficiency and regularity are emphasized – especially true with automatic giving and this benefits the smooth functioning of the church since regular income can be expected
There are negative aspects to this mode of giving as well. Automatic giving, while certainly not a bad thing, caters to those with means since the poor may not always have reliable funds in an account. Giving an offering in a Western church also often feels like a (necessary) formality to get past to move on to “real” worship.
Learning From One Another
The point being made here is not to condemn or condone a certain way of giving, but to ask ourselves what our ritual of giving communicates. Both the Western and Congolese ways of giving reinforce and reflect their respective cultural values and worldviews.
What about Matt 6:3?
Jesus was certainly concerned about the intentions of the heart (Matt 6:1). Jews of Jesus’ time viewed giving alms to the poor as an important indicator of faithfulness to God (e.g., Tobit 12:8). What Jesus condemns is giving with attention being intentionally drawn to the giver with the purpose of swaying the opinion of others, to elevate one’s status. He was not saying don’t ever let anyone see you give something. In fact, the charity boxes of Jesus day were placed in public spaces. The fact that they were shaped like trumpets may indicate Jesus was intending a wordplay.
That Jesus is concerned with drawing personal attention to one’s piety is made clear by his allusion to the Greco-Roman theater (and, yes, Jerusalem had one).
- The greek word used, θεάομαι (theaomai) in Matt 6:1, “to be seen,” is defined by the standard Greek lexicon, BDAG, as “to have an intent look at someth., to take someth. in with one’s eyes, with implication that one is esp. impressed, see, look at, behold.” It is also the root from which the English word “theater” derives (or θέατρον, theatron in Greek).
- Another term Jesus uses, ὑποκριτής (hypokritēs), referred to a play actor in the Greco-Roman theater, who carried out his acting by coordinating the movements of the right and left hands!
- Additionally, the blowing of horns accompanied scene changes.
But there’s a further social dimension that Jesus may be thinking of too, which is not necessarily competing with the theater allusion. That is, Greco-Roman society as well as Jewish (since it was heavily influenced by Hellenism) held high regard for patrons. These were elite, powerful, and wealthy people who performed public acts of benefaction to boost their reputation and extend their influence.
Whenever some great deed was done by them, an associated inscription (or several) was installed in commemoration. This served as a continual reminder of their importance and influence. Interestingly, we have evidence of such inscriptions at both synagogues and streets, two public domains which Jesus mentions in Matt 6:1-4.
- For a synagogue, there is the famous Theodotus inscription, which reads (translation cited in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):
Theodotus, son of Vettenus, priest and archisynagogos [ruler of the synagogue], son of an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, constructed the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments and the guest-room and the (upper?) chambers and the installations of water for a hostelry for those needing (them) from abroad, which was founded by his fathers and the elders and Simonides.
- For a street, there was a Greek inscription dating to 17/18 BC (20th yr of King Herod’s reign) that details the donation of a Jew from Rhodes who paid for the paving of the area
We can honor Matt 6:1-4 in a number of ways while still also reflecting our cultural values through the ritual. What remains important is that we all reflect on (i.e. critique our culture) how we give and what that communicates. If we don’t like what it communicates, we can change our ritual so that it is congenial with what we believe and the values we want to reinforce in our respective communities.