Question: Was blowing trumpets in the streets (as in Matt. 6:2) a real practice in Jesus’ day when people give to the poor, or was this simply a metaphor?
Here is Jesus’ teaching:
Matt. 6:2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”
One of the hallmarks of Judaism—then and now—is the practice of doing “sacred deeds” or “mitzvot”—what the New Testament usually translates as “good deeds.” Giving alms to the poor is one example of such a “sacred deed.” When a person gives alms out of mercy and compassion, Judaism correctly views such an action as a reflection of God’s own mercy, “a deed in the form of a prayer.”[i] Because these sacred deeds are seen as reflecting God’s own holiness, Judaism also views doing good deeds as having a sanctifying effect upon the person who does them, making the person more godly.
A twisted heart can easily turn this into a self-centered effort at being viewed by others as “spiritual” and “godly” based on the number of good deeds performed. And to receive that kind of attention, the good deeds would need to be done in public. There were plenty of opportunities for doing these good deeds in public without appearing self-serving—especially during Israel’s national Feast Days and, even more so, during days set aside for fasting. This is where “blowing the trumpets” comes in.
Rabbinic sources from Jesus’ day indicate that it was common practice to announce the beginning of corporate Days of Fasting with the blowing of trumpets. It was also customary during such Fast Days to publicly pray for rain in association with the planting season. This is likely the practice Jesus was referring to in verse 5:
Matt. 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”
Since all of this was taking place publicly already, what better time to give alms to the poor? The trumpets blow, announcing that the days of fasting have begun, people pour out into the streets to pray for rain and a good harvest season, and those who give to the poor are seen by all their friends and neighbors and applauded for being so “spiritual.”
Those who truly desire to please the Lord in giving to those in need will not draw attention to themselves. It is enough to know that God sees the heart:
Heb. 4:13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.