A wealthy merchant gives alms to a pair of mendicants. He holds a scale in his left hand as if weighing out the portions of his charitable gifts.
The Six of Pentacles, obviously, speaks to charity and sharing our bounty with others less fortunate, but another side is also suggested. Notice the scales the merchant is holding. He only gives away an amount that allows the scales to be kept reasonably in balance. In other words, he is generous, but only to a point, and for reasons he keeps to himself.
Perhaps we see this type of person in our daily lives when we read of wealthy philanthropists donating money—sometimes, very large sums—to various charitable organizations and academic institutions. Sometimes, this giving is altruistic and sincere, its aim the betterment of man. Other times, however, the gift comes with strings attached: A policy agenda or a political cause that the donor wishes to advance, but which he or she does not want to be personally associated with. These large-scale donations can make charities dependent on philanthropy, and because of that, the philanthropist is in a position to lord over the charity, and to manipulate it to his own ends—to keep it “in its place,” in other words. This we see in the forms of the two kneeling (i.e., subordinate) beggars and the upright (controlling) merchant.
In our inner lives, this occurs when we love others transactionally rather than transcendentally. When we love others on the expectation that a material good or advantage will accrue to us, we debase the meaning of love and how God would have us express it. After all, it has been said, if we would be perfect, we would sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. For that reason, we must love unconditionally, giving the gift of miracles without thought of reward.
Meanings of this card can include: Charity, generosity, sharing, selflessness, worthy causes of all kinds; but also dependency, duplicity, domination, manipulation and self-interest. It is generally a virtue to share our good fortune with others, but as with everything else we do, sometimes we need to ask ourselves why we are doing it. Are we acting in utter good faith, or do we have ulterior motives?