Secret Acts of Righteousness

Matthew 6:1-6, Matthew 6:16-18

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 others. (Matthew 6:2)

If you’re not Bill Gates or Bono or Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, nobody gives a fig how much money you give to charity. You could sound the trumpet all day long to announce your generosity and no one walking down the street would be impressed. They’d think you were a nut. Even if you used modern methods to publicize your kindness – a news release, a press conference, an advertisement or the like – no one would sing your praises. If your announcement garnered any public attention, it would probably be something of this sort: “What a jerk! Does he think he’s better than the rest of us?”

What is true of charity is even truer of prayer and fasting, the other two components of Jesus’ trilogy of righteous deeds. Someone praying loudly on the street corner? A kook! Someone covered in dirt and wailing a dirge? An even bigger kook!

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 have lost some of their power in the public sphere, but they still carry a good bit of weight in at least two other arenas.

In Matthew 6:1-6 and Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus identifies three different kinds of righteous deeds: acts of mercy, prayer and fasting. “Acts of mercy,” by the way, is a better (and more literal) translation of Matthew 6:2 than “give to the needy.” I have no doubt that the phrase came to serve as an idiom for “giving alms,”  but the words themselves suggest a much broader range of possibilities.

Jesus speaks of those who perform their righteous deeds in the streets, but he also speaks of those who perform them in the synagogue. The word “synagogue” describes an assembly of people; over time, it also came to describe the building where they assembled. In much the same way, the word “church” in the New Testament also describes an assembly of people. Only after the New Testament was written did it come to describe the building where they came together.

While the world may no longer care about our righteous deeds, the people of our assembly do. And, I suspect, we care what the people of the assembly think about us.

In speaking about each of the three forms of righteous deeds (mercy, prayer and fasting), Jesus repeats the same three words in each logion:

  • Hypocrite (Actor)
  • Crypto (Secret)
  • Reward

When doing your acts of righteousness, Jesus says, don’t be like an actor on the stage. Actors in the ancient Greek theater wore masks and consequently could play the parts of several different characters during a production. Every time they changed their masks, they changed characters. A godly person’s righteousness, Jesus says, should not be a matter of play acting in front of others, to gain honor in their eyes. There is only one audience for our acts of righteousness, and that is God alone.

Given our fallen nature, it doesn’t surprise me that the members of Christ’s church sometimes put on masks to hide their imperfections and sins. People want others to think well of them, but the church ought to be a place where we can reveal our sinfulness, doubt, pain and brokenness to others. That’s what people who are saved by grace ought to be able to do. Perhaps there are only a few people with whom we can develop that level of trust. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be putting on airs with the rest of Christ’s church. Even if you only let a few brothers or sisters see everything that’s there, you shouldn’t be misleading other people by pretending to be something you’re not.

Jesus tells his followers to do their righteous deeds in secret. As a Soldier, I think that’s a pretty heavy-duty word picture that he’s using. For those of us in uniform, the word “crypto” that he uses doesn’t mean “kind of secret” or “mostly secret.” Things that are classified “SECRET” are to be protected from even accidental disclosure to an unauthorized person. Our human pride, however, finds ways to let the secret out.

Do your righteous deeds in secret, Jesus says, and the heavenly father who sees what is done is secret will reward you. Now if the father sees what is done in secret, that’s something of a two-edged sword. He will see your righteous deeds and reward you. Left unsaid, however, is the corollary to Jesus’ proposition. He will see your unrighteous deeds, too. There’s no reason to put on a mask and play a part. The father knows what is – and what isn’t – true. It is essential to one’s faith to believe that God sees our righteous deeds done in secret and rewards them. It is quite sobering to realize that God sees our secret unrighteousness as well.

Jesus, by the way, was not the only Jewish teacher to suggest that giving alms is best done quietly. Rabbi Aben Ezra, for example, said:

a man that gives alms to the poor, must not give it because of the glory of the collector, i.e. that he may have glory of him; nor that the children of men may praise him.

The reward one should seek, Jesus says, is not the applause of men and women, but the reward that only God can give. Jesus does not specify what God’s reward consists of, but the word Jesus uses means “payment in full.” If the approval of others is the payment you seek from life, how sad is that? But what kind of reward does God give those who live righteously? It should be obvious that the “payment in full” which God offers does not consist of heavenly trinkets or spiritual status symbols. He’s not talking about a mansion just over the hilltop on streets of purest gold. Thinking in such terms falls into the same “competition for honor” category that Jesus rejects. What is payment in full for someone who seeks first the reign of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33)? The question answers itself.

We should remember, here, that Jesus is using hyperbole to make a single point. Is it permissible to plan one’s giving? Is it permissible to collaborate with other Christians to raise money for God’s purposes? Is it permissible to pray with and for other Christians? Of course. We know that the apostolic church did precisely those things. Should a Christian see his or her life as an example for others to imitate? Paul says that he sees his life that way. Human pride, however, will tend to take these necessary and important things and distort them into something ugly. We must always be on the watch against the destructive power of pride and self-love.

We should be very careful of doing our righteous deeds in front of our brothers and sisters in such a way that conveys a false impression to them or that seeks their approval of us on the basis of anything other than the cross of Christ.

But there is still one other audience that Jesus doesn’t mention, but whose approval we also often seek. If I want other Christians to think well of me as a “good Christian,” I also want to think the same thing of myself. We play act for others; we can also play act for ourselves, to improve our self-image and raise our self-esteem.

In “God Only: Giving up soul care for Lent,” Mark Galli commented on the contemporary fascination with spirituality and spiritual practices:

Lent is that season of the church year when we deal with those thoughts and habits and addictions that get in the way of loving God. For many in our narcissistic culture, soul care is somewhere between an obsessive-compulsive disorder and an addiction. Given our natural fascination with ourselves, it’s hard to write about the soul without ending up talking about the self and stuff that makes us feel better about ourselves. . . .

It’s no surprise that … soul discussion can morph into humanism or spiritual self-interest. Unfortunately, we hear much talk these days in evangelical circles about “caring for the soul” and “feeding one’s soul” and such. I won’t name names, because this isn’t about finding a villain. It’s about our — my! — instinctive drift to make spirituality about “me.” We worry about the depth of our commitment to Christ, so we get busy with some new spiritual discipline, something we can do. We dissect our motives as if we’re peeling an onion, with the same ultimate results.

No question that we need to engage in the disciplines and explore our motives — that’s one way we prepare ourselves to see and hear God, and to love him more deeply. But you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in spiritual direction to realize that these activities easily devolve into a religious narcissism that constantly wonders, Am I spiritual yet?

News flash: Nobody cares if we are “spiritual.” Not even God. . . .

That’s the difference between healthy and neurotic spirituality: What is our first love? Who is our first love? While we are rightly concerned about losing our devotion to Christ because of some “worldly attraction,” usually the temptation lies within. The question is not, “Am I spiritual yet?” and not even, “Do I love God?” (for this question in the end is about our love). The question is not a question but a focus: God.

There is a reason Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God. It’s not to care for your soul. It’s not to practice spirituality. It’s not to transform the world or change culture or evangelize the world. All of these things have their place. But the greatest command is to love God. . . .

So if you are as tempted as I constantly am to take the measure of your soul, you may want to consider abandoning soul care for 40 days, and give your whole attention to the only One worth our obsessive devotion.

Galli’s observations are not new. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the Christian should not be constantly “feeling his spiritual pulse” or taking the temperature of his or her Christian fellowship. If I shouldn’t expect other Christians to love me on the basis of anything other than the cross of Christ, neither should I look at myself through any other lens. In the cross of Christ I find my sin revealed and my reconciliation with God achieved. Therefore, neither self-accusation nor self-congratulation are in order.

The question, Galli says, is a matter of focus. We are to focus on God. How shall we do that? Shall we “think a lot about God?” That’s far too abstract. “God” can mean so many things.

For Christians, to focus on God means primarily two things: word (story) and sacrament (participation). To focus on God during this season of Lent means to focus on the story of God’s self-revelation and mighty acts of power in Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. To focus on God means to participate in the community of faith which comes together around a table set with bread, wine and the word of God. Acts of mercy, prayer and fasting play a part of that participation, but so do acts of service, proclamation and attentiveness to the word of God.

In the light of the cross, if we give to others in acts of mercy, we do so for Christ’s sake … because he first gave himself for us and for all humankind. If we pray, we pray for an audience of one … because the one who gave himself for us is worthy of praise and adoration. If we fast, we fast for God alone … because we love the one who suffered privation for our sake and for the sake of a world in need.

Do these things for the the Father alone, and the Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.