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Left Hand; Right Hand
The following excerpt from The New Man by Dr. Maurice Nicoll deals with the downside of Almsgiving. However, the wisdom herein also readily applies to the “almsgiving” of one’s deeds, services and use of personal gifts and graces just as well. As the passage is read, consider what specific task for which ancients used their left hands.
The footnotes are mine. – J. Snyder
when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand
This is spoken in reference to this other kind of righteousness through which entry to the Kingdom of Heaven is only possible. What does it mean? In the previous verse it is emphasized that a person must not do his alms “to be seen of men” as do the scribes and Pharisees. Alms signify what you do out of mercy. This does not mean only charitable acts; it means inner forgiveness, inner canceling of debts against others. In the ancient language of parables the left hand denotes evil and the right hand good. In the Parable of the Separation of the Sheep from the Goats, at the consummation of the age (not the end of the world), it is said that the sheep are set on the right hand and the goats on the left. In the above passage not “letting the left hand know what the right hand doeth” refers to two levels in Man which must be made distinct.
Notice that you must not let the left hand know what the right does, not the other way round. Man at his ordinary level is “evil”, and here it means a man sunk in his own self-love and vanity, and a creature of the senses. The senses are the world. The right hand means a higher or the beginning of a higher level of understanding. He must not mix these two levels—that is, he must not let his left hand know what his right hand does.
The left hand is the lower level dominated by self-love. What a man does from a higher level must be kept away from a lower level. In acts of inner mercy, in doing his alms, a man must not act from the idea of reward for to do so is to act from the level in him called “the scribes and Pharisees”—the level of the world—the lower level. He must act beyond this level, for the sake of doing good, and not let what he has done in this respect become a matter of praise and so nourish his vanity and self-love and self-righteousness.
But more than this, he must not even think about what he has done or converse with himself about it and congratulate himself on his noble behavior, otherwise what he has done will pass into meritoriousness, even although no one knows about it. It will drop down to that level in himself. He will begin to congratulate himself, to fall back, as it were, on his merit. He must know what it means to keep silence—in himself. He must not talk to himself of what he has done.
But, as a rule, when a man does good of any kind, he longs that others should know it and so he cannot keep silence either in himself, or in regard to others. He acts before an audience, both internal and external. Christ speaks first of not acting before an external audience and then about not acting before an internal audience, called here the “left hand”—which is the lower level or life-level in him. Once we understand that everything said in the Gospels is about reaching a higher, and a possible, level in a man, the meaning of left and right becomes clear.
Left is the lower level and right the higher level. A man on the lower level, acting from the left hand, feels merit and wishes to justify himself by his charitable actions and have his reward. This is one form of righteousness. But a man beginning to behave from a higher level, from the right hand, seeks no reward, for he acts from what he sees internally is good and for the sake of what is good itself, so, seeking no reward either from within or without, comes into a righteousness over and above that of “the scribes and Pharisees”.
He does not speak to others of what he has done, nor does he tell himself how well he behaved. Both towards the outer audience and the inner he is silent. This is what is meant by the phrase “unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of Heaven”. If a man’s righteousness does not exceed in this respect, he is kept on a lower level of himself inevitably. This teaching, seen in the light of the lower and higher levels in a man, becomes practical in its meaning as does also the significance of left and right hand.
And it is also perhaps possible to understand to some extent what is meant that another and a “hidden” reward may come, spoken of in the sentence “and thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee in secret”. An extraordinary misunderstanding of the meaning of these words of Christ is found in the Authorized Version where it is said “and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly”. It is obvious that the scribe who altered the words in transcription had not any idea of their meaning and could not understand any reason for doing “alms” secretly save for external reward and for the sake of feeling meritoriousness and self-satisfaction and so could not refrain from adding that alms done in secret would be rewarded openly.
And perhaps at this point we might try to understand why it is that so often people, not perceiving that the Gospels are about re-birth of a higher level of Man, take everything said in them on their own level, and so mix up two orders or levels of truth. To take the Gospels apart from their central idea of re-birth, which means an inner evolution and implies the existence of a higher level, is to understand nothing of their real meaning. People will then only think of justifying themselves in terms of themselves as they are and the world they know, not understanding that another birth of themselves is demanded, a new form of themselves, not simply an increase of what they are already.[i]
And in spite of the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven—that is, the highest possible level of a man—is said to be within[ii], and to be the object of final attainment, they think that it refers to some state after death, in future time, and not to a state attainable or at least to be striven after, in this life on earth—a new state of themselves that actually exists as a possibility now, as something above what one is, like a room on the next floor of this house that is oneself, to which so many references are made in the parables.
In consequence of this misunderstanding people cannot separate the left hand from the right, and as a result anything they do runs, as it were, into the lower level, and takes a wrong form; and often this is the cause of absurd, distressing or even evil examples of religious life, owing to the ascribing of what is higher to what is lower, and the mixing up of two orders of ideas. It is like an acorn taking to itself all the teaching about an oak-tree and imagining it is an oak-tree as it is.
From all this we can realize that no one can continue to justify himself in the way he has always done and expect to become another and a New Man. His feeling of his own righteousness must change, for as long as he feels that he is righteous as he is, he cannot change. His whole idea of what it means to be righteous must change, because it is exactly people’s feeling of being righteous, of being in the right, that prevents them from changing. They are satisfied with themselves. It is only others who are wrong, not themselves.
And it is also their feeling of being already righteous and in the right that determines their special forms of justifying themselves. From this they derive their feeling or worth and merit, and it is just here that they are most easily upset, most easily offended. Is anything more easy than being offended and giving offence? This is the human situation. The extraordinarily harsh teaching of the Gospels is to break this feeling of merit and complacency that everyone openly or secretly rests upon, and this is the source of being offended.
In the light of the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, in view of this possible inner evolution, of this higher level, a man must come to realize that he is almost nothing as he is, and that all his vanity, merit, conceit, self-esteem, self-liking, self-satisfaction and self-love, and all his imagination of himself, is practically an illusion. It is indeed only possible to understand that harsh teaching of Christ in view of its aim, which is to break up a man’s whole psychology, the man as life has made him, the man he regards himself as, and make him think and feel and act in a new way, so that he begins to move towards a higher level, towards another state of himself that exists within him as a possibility.
For to pass from one level to another, from the state of an acorn to the state of a tree, everything must be rearranged and altered. All a man’s ordinary relations with different sides of himself must alter. The whole setting of his being must change. The whole man must change. For this reason Christ said:
“I came not to bring peace but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: and a man’s foes shall be those of his own household.” (Matt. 10:34-36.)
This has not an external, a literal meaning. It signifies an internal upheaval, a change in a man’s whole psychology, a change in all that in him is “father”, “mother”, “daughter”, “daughter-in-law”, “mother-in-law”, and so on—in him, psychologically. All his relationships to himself must change, and this means that all his ideas about himself and his whole feeling of himself must change. A man’s household means all that is in the man himself—not his body but his psychology—the household of all the different sides of himself. All the ideas, all the attitudes, that were the “father” or “mother” of his thoughts and views and opinions and all the relationships resulting from them must change in view of the sword which is the power of truth of a higher order.
Meeting this higher order of truth a man can no longer be at peace with himself as he is. He must think in a new way—and no one can think in a new way merely by adding some extra knowledge to what he already thinks. The whole man must change—that is, his whole mind must change, first of all. This parable refers to the starting-point of Christ’s teaching, to metanoia[iii] (metanouV)—to a man beginning to think beyond how he always thought, to think in an entirely new way about himself and his meaning and his aim. It is not repentance, as translated, but new thinking, over and above all that he thought before.
In the same way, the righteousness that Christ speaks of is over and above and beyond all that a man has justified himself by and regarded as being his righteousness, his idea of being right. It is, indeed, meta-righteousness.
[i] Inner evolution: this is described in John 1:12,13 and the discussion of which John 3:3 is a part.
[ii] Within: rather, “among.” RSV: Luke 17:21 “nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
[iii] Metanoia is traditional translated as “repentance.”