Jesus Calls Us to Secret Saintliness

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:1

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

Matthew 6:1 rsv

Isn’t this a strange idea: that we should keep our religion a secret? Jesus talks about confessing Him before men, boldly proclaiming His truth, identifying ourselves openly with His cause. And didn’t He say to His followers: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”? (Matt. 5:16). Isn’t there something wrong and shameful, then, about hiding your light under a bushel, being a secret believer, not letting on that you’re a Christian?

Think about those questions as I read these words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6, beginning at verse 1:

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to 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 in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 1-6)

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 16-18).

Now, how do we put all of that together with the call to let our light shine, to be unashamed in our Christian commitment? First of all, let’s notice that Jesus is talking in both passages about motivation. Believers are to let their light shine before others, to be a living, visible testimony to Jesus Christ so that a watching world may turn to God, honor Him, and give Him praise. On the other hand, they are not to make a public display of their religious activities in order to attract attention to themselves.

Not every act of charity can be completely anonymous. And the fact that we pray and deny ourselves in various ways will probably become known. The problem is not that others see our devotional practices but that we want them to see. Why do we do what we do? Is it to point to God or is it to rack up points for ourselves?

SELF-DISPLAY

Notice the kinds of behavior Jesus is speaking against. They’re all exaggerated forms of self-display. Here’s a Pharisee giving alms. He’s making a contribution for the poor. He does it publicly. No special problem with that. But before he drops his gift in the treasury, he blows a trumpet. He plays a fanfare of announcement so that no one can possibly miss his act of generosity. It’s so pretentious, so self-serving as to be ludicrous.

Next, he describes religious people who pray in public. Again, there’s nothing blameworthy about that. But these religious folk, when the hour for prayer is sounded at the temple, assume a pose. They seek out the busiest intersections in the city or the most visible stations in the synagogue, thereby advertising the fact that they are people of prayer. These, Jesus says, are play actors. Piety seems to be a kind of role for them. They have a strong interest in appearing to be religious.

The third stratagem is equally laughable. Here are people who engage in the regular Monday and Thursday fasts. They so blacken their faces and assume mournful expressions that everyone around them gets the impression that they are in agony. Observers think: “How rigorously they must deny themselves! How dedicated they are! How contemptuous of all worldly pleasures!” At least, that’s the image. And for these people, image is everything.

HIDDEN DEVOTION

In contrast, Jesus urges on His followers what seems to us an exaggerated secrecy. Those who give alms, who contribute to the poor, are not only not to advertise it; they mustn’t even let their left hand know what the right is doing. They are not to talk about it even to their closest friends. They’re to go out of their way to avoid attracting attention to their liberality. Jesus seems to be saying, “Try your hardest to keep anyone else from finding out what you did.”

When it comes to prayer, Jesus says in effect, “Let your private devotions be really private. Go to your own room. Close the door and pray there.” This is poles apart from the practice of telling others how long we pray every day, cultivating the impression of fervent and prolonged prayerfulness. Be done with all that, Jesus says. Let those matters be between you and God.

And when you’re fasting, even though you may be very hungry, don’t make a show of it. Instead of disfiguring your face so that people will think you’re miserable, dress up, anoint your head, wash your face. Look for all the world like you’re going to a party.

Remember, Jesus is not outlawing public prayer. He is not against placing an offering in the basket when others can see. And we surely can’t always appear well-fed when we’ve been on a prolonged fast. But the point is in each case that we are to renounce all effort to impress people with our saintliness. Jesus is talking about a secrecy for us that’s not a conspiracy, but simple modesty. We don’t put on airs. We don’t play a part. We let our daily living show that we are generous, devout, self-denying followers of Jesus. We don’t try to convince people of it by self-conscious posturing.

TWO KINDS OF REWARD

Jesus says a good deal in this passage also about reward. And again, it’s a reward that depends on motivation. Suppose you do what some of these Pharisees did? Onlookers see the generous gift you bestow and they say, “Isn’t Mr. X a large-hearted man? Did you see the amount of money he gave? He’s a world-class benefactor.” Now if that’s the impression you wanted to produce, you got it. And when you did, you got everything you’re going to get. Your account was closed. You have your reward.

Suppose your design in public praying is to get the crowd buzzing about how pious you are, how closely in touch with God you are. If they shake their heads in wonder, if they extol your godliness to others, you’ve reached your goal. You have your reward, but that’s it. Nothing more will be forthcoming.

The same is true, Jesus says, about our fasting when we labor and scheme to have it noticed. People may whisper to each other, “Poor man, he’s almost killing himself because of his love for God. He shames us all with his rigorous self-denial.” Let’s say that’s the word going around about you, and that’s what consciously or semi-consciously you were after. Then for you it’s “mission accomplished.” The admiration of the crowd is your payment for the performance, payment in full.

On the other hand, if you follow the other route, not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, going into the closet and shutting the door when you pray, trying to look healthy and happy even when fasting, you will obviously get no payback from the crowd. They won’t even dream that you do these things. How could they applaud and admire you? The saintliness is all secret. So you won’t reap the reward of popular renown. No one will praise you for acts of devotion that are completely hidden from them.

But if you adopt this latter course, Jesus says, God will notice it. He will take it into account and you will unfailingly receive from His hand. What’s the nature of His reward? Jesus doesn’t say. What will God give to those who practice their piety for His eye alone? I don’t know. But it will be something supremely worth having. Maybe it will be a deep sense of contentment, maybe a richer fellowship with God, a fuller likeness to His Son. Maybe something of gift, of prayer, of loving service will come back to us in this world. Or maybe it will all be future, the Lord’s “well done” at the end of the way. But the reward in this case, whatever it is, will come not from a watching world but from God Himself.

HEART RELIGION

Why do you suppose Jesus stresses this theme so strongly in His Sermon on the Mount? So many vivid illustrations hammer home again and again the same point. At first glance it seems to us a relatively minor issue. Public or private – what’s the big deal?

But there’s something much deeper here. All through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is dealing with a heart religion. It’s not just killing a person but also despising him or her that’s a kind of murder. It’s not just committing adultery but harboring lustful intentions that breaks God’s command. And here in this issue about secrecy, everything depends on the attitude of the heart. That determines whether our religion is a performance or a passion. Is it window dressing or is it worship?

The burning issue is one of faith. All pretense, all hypocrisy, all self-display in religion, is an expression of practical unbelief. If God were piercingly real to us, we would avoid such things like the plague. It’s because we don’t see Him in the picture that we angle for applause from the crowd. You know how it is when two people are talking about another. They keep it up in animated fashion until he or she appears. Then they suddenly fall silent. Aware of the other’s presence, they no longer gossip. In our case, when we believe, when we become aware of God’s presence, we give up our posturing and pretending.

The question for all of us is: who is watching? Who is listening? Before whom do we stand in all of life? Whose face do we discern? Whom do we seek to please? How much clears up in life when we realize moment by moment that we are in God’s presence, under His eye!

Let’s not caricature these Pharisees. The vivid form in which these pictures are drawn shouldn’t blind us to the fact that what we’re grappling with here is our problem too. How prone we are to want to impress other people! How self-conscious and self-centered we are a good deal of the time! To be really conscious of God, to live with the awareness that His eye is upon us, we need an inner transformation. In Jesus’ words, we need to be born again.

And take heart, friends, it’s for this that He came and lived among us. He taught as He did, died for our sins and rose again, to give us life. He sent forth His Spirit so that we could be transformed within, so that we could repent of our shallow, surface religiousness, all the ways in which we wear the mask of piety over a selfish life.

Friends, it’s possible. We can begin to give alms and to do good out of grateful, loving hearts. We can pray, not because it’s the thing to do but as a response of faith to God’s grace. And we can begin to deny ourselves, yes, to take up our cross and follow Christ because He gave Himself for us. Our lives then may make a powerful impression on those around us, as salt in the earth and light in the world. Yet our desire will be more and more that Christ Himself be seen and magnified. Here’s the motto of secret saintliness: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). God give us such hearts!