Hidden Righteousness

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

—Matthew 6:1-4

As we turn the pages of our calendars from one year to another, so, too, we turn the pages of our text for this semester’s reflections from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel to the sixth. While we might be turning from one chapter to another, we are continuing our walk with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, meandering from mountain top to plane, from city to countryside reflecting on the meaning of discipleship, the life of faith, and how such a life of faith might have any relevancy for our lives, today.

With all of our promises of new resolutions and hopeful introduction of better disciplines that accompany the New Year, the trading in of one year with another often means a significant departure from the previous year’s habits and hang-ups. Similarly, our move from chapter five of Matthew’s gospel to chapter six offers a significant and seemingly abrupt departure from what came before.

In chapter five, as Bonhoeffer notes, the writer asks us to “let our lights shine” (5:16). Yet, here, just a few verses later, we are asked to “‘[b]eware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. . . . [rather, let it] be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’” Something seems amiss in this discontinuity between chapters five and six. Which is it? Are we to “let our lights shine,” or are we to “let it be done in secret?” One seems to cancel the other. Which do you want, Matthew?

Bonhoeffer is well aware of this apparent paradox, too. If we are to move forward in our journey of discipleship, this tension requires resolution. And, that resolution seems to come from remembering the character of discipleship, i.e., the substance of discipleship is defined by the following, not the one doing the following. In other words, discipleship is about focus. Chapter five celebrates attention focused on the person of Christ. While chapter six begins with a warning against attention focused on ourselves.

You see, that different focus is the source of the apparent tension between chapters five and six. However, in reality, the foci of chapters five and six are not so much in tension but opposite sides of the same, faithful coin. Both are reminders that the life of faith is first a life with a focus that points beyond ourselves. Chapter five states this reminder positively, reminding us what to do. Chapter six states this reminder negatively, reminding us what not to do.

At the heart of chapter five beats the claim that our lives of Christian discipleship demand expectations that what we do will deflect attention away from ourselves, our promotion, and our benefit and toward God as revealed in Christ. While, the crux of these first verses of chapter six is a claim that lives that focus on faithful disciplines while drawing attention to ourselves fail to accomplish their intent. Rather than focusing attention toward God, such mis-focused actions turn our own gaze and others’ away from God and toward ourselves. Accordingly, we become the centers of our world, repeating the “original sin” of the Garden of Eden.

In that garden story, Adam and Eve replace God as the arbiters of good and evil, assuming that roll themselves. And, that seems to be what the gospel writer is reminding us in the text from Matthew’s gospel in chapter six. While on the surface, much of what the hypocrites are doing would be considered appropriate and commendable. The propriety and commendableness of their actions evaporates the moment their actions draw attention to themselves and away from God. Discipleship is not about celebrating ourselves to the expense of changing God’s locus, but changing ourselves while celebrating God.

This chapter and its warnings against placing ourselves at the center of our worlds seems likes a great place to begin a year, a semester, and a series of iChapels. Often, life encourages or devolves to locate ourselves and our expectations and interests at the center of our worlds, becoming the defining, blinding priorities for how we live and what we do. Other times, we intentionally locate ourselves at the center of our worlds. This chapter and the time of the year during which we read it provides a timely antidote, inoculating us against the persisting pressure to slip ourselves into the middle of our personal universes and press forward.

I think of this timely warning especially as we install a new congress and inaugurate a president. Each day, our newscasts are taxed with story after story of irascible politicians holding intransigent positions, more concerned with remaining ideologically pure than with displacing personal perceptions of what is right in favor of self-sacrifice for the sake of our mutual benefit and collective advancement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not looking to be overly simplistic or reductionist, assuming that all we need is to set ourselves aside, get along better, and all will benefit as a result. Life is not that neat or that facile. And, some problems require more compromise. And, with some, compromise is too much to ask. (But, seriously, every problem cannot fall into this latter category.)

Rather, all I am suggesting is a modest proposal that at least our rhetoric shift toward favoring and advocating language of compromise above language that seems to promote and reward separation, self-advancement, and singular certainty.

Maybe asking politicians to serve as the exemplars of better, more selfless actions is expecting too much? Maybe a modest proposal requires a more modest beginning than I have been suggested? So, I want to modify my modest proposal. Maybe the only effective place to being a wave of selfless action is, ironically, with ourselves. In the end, we have the most control over our own actions. And, it is with ourselves that we might expect to begin a small ripple of redirection away from our own wants and perspectives and toward those that are larger, beyond, and more eternal than ourselves, creating a tidal wave of change washing over the whole world, making it anew.

It is this modified proposal that might have the traction actually to take hold and move us forward. And, whether one calls themselves a person of faith or of no faith, such a proposal seems a reasonable enough patch of common ground upon which to embark on a common journey.

I began with a bit of scripture. Now, I end with a diversion toward a prayer. My modified proposal seems all too familiar and appropriate when placed against the traditional prayer John Wesley asked his Methodist followers to pray at the beginning of each New Year. It is that timely prayer and its hopeful refocusing of life away from self and toward God that I leave you.

Enjoy. And, see you along the way.

John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will,

Rank me with whom you will;

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by you,

Or laid aside by you,

Exalted by you or brought low by you.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

To your pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

you are mine, and I am yours.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

Let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

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