Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them

‘Beware of practising 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.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

- Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

Jesus expands his teachings in this reading to include instruction about the dangers of hypocrisy. My study bible points out that the original meaning of the word "hypocrite" in the Greek meant "actor." A note reads, "Hypocrites are play-actors practicing theatrical piety. They put on their show in synagogues and in the streets to please men, not God. Wearing masks of compassion, inwardly they are heartless. Their reward is the applause of men, nothing more."

In this passage, we are taught by Jesus that there are basic components to practicing our faith: Jesus addresses charitable giving, prayer and fasting. We start with alms-giving. Is it done to show off to others? Do we receive a blessing in the form of our good image? I think we can all think of ways in which giving in public can be a cover for someone who has failed to embody in any way the teachings that have preceded this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly modern events regarding public cases of corruption against the seemingly pious can come to mind to instruct us. My study bible again has a note I find very precise and helpful: "God is not impressed with what other people think of us, or even with our own opinion of ourselves. He sees who we really are, and He knows our motives as well as our deeds. Everything will be judged, and our good deeds will be rewarded openly (v.4)." There is a very important notion running through each of these paragraphs in the reading about "reward." It all depends on what we seek. If our image in the eyes of others is all-important, how we look before the group, then this image becomes the entire substance of reward. If we are seeking to please God instead, then the reward is in that relationship. There is no crossing of lines here: we're either seeking to please one or the other. As we've seen through the gospels, the opinion of the crowd, popularity, is not the way that Jesus measures our worth. Often the narrative in these gospels teaches us that this opinion has no worth at all in terms of measuring who we truly are as persons.

Next comes instruction on prayer. There's a section from the gospel missing from our reading, and that is the specific instruction and teaching of the Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father." Again, the emphasis is on the relationship to God. We are to go into our inner chamber, in secret, and there we pray. We develop this relationship - just as we can understand we are to do in other personal relationships that are important to us - not for show to the world, but for the love that is between we who are in such a relationship. Again, there is the repeated notion that the reward we receive comes out of our own intention in the first place. Do we seek the praise of men or the praise of God? There is a clear line drawn between the two here. Our reward will reflect what we're seeking in the first place.

And finally, we come to fasting. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that's not necessarily in wide use in our society, but I think it's important to understand the nature of this discipline. My study bible notes: "Keeping a sad countenance while fasting, so that everyone can see how one is suffering, is mere external display. Jesus rejects such hypocrisy. For the one who fasts, the compassion of God outshines physical discomfort: joy overshadows sorrow. ... And fasting is not merely abstaining from eating. Physical fasting works together with spiritual fasting, or self-denial: it is a liberation of the spirit from its voluntary enslavement to sinful passions. Fasting is for the glory of God, not to impress people around us." The true aim of fasting is practicing a spiritual discipline: we refrain from indulging ourselves in that which is sinful (such as, let's say, the repetition of slander or malicious gossip, for example). Fasting or abstinence teaches us that we have choices; it is a discipline in which we engage in order to understand the nature of spiritual choice and how we work together in relatedness to that Spirit which works with us.

Again, as in all the teachings we've examined so far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is instructing us in ways in which relationship and relatedness is strengthened. Ultimately, in these most intimate instructions on spiritual practice, our relationship to God our Father is what is emphasized. There's an important note in my study bible about Sonship: Jesus' Sonship by nature is extended to us through adoption. It's through the relationship itself, our cultivation and development of this very personal relationship, that we are children of God by adoption. This very personal and private practice that is emphasized in these teachings goes to enforce the notion of personal relationship. If we seek "the praise of men" we're not really focused on the relationship itself and the rewards thereof. I find this similar to a marriage: is a marriage simply for public show? Is it a prop (as an actor would use) to be used for some form of popularity or approval? These are the wrong reasons to pursue a relationship, and our reward will only come from those "other men" and not from the relationship itself. Above all, these teachings emphasize love - the development and cultivation of love. In this case in these passages, the love between God our Father and ourselves, and the rewards of a loving relationship. Jesus teaches us that the quest for public show or image in the eyes of others stands in the way of receiving the rewards of this true love we find in relationship. How do we work on practicing the depth of sincerity implied here? There is ever pressure to be a "joiner," to be seen as part of a group, to be seen to share a particular opinion or loyalty. Many will tell us that we're only certain to be good people when we're pleasing others somehow. But ultimately, the relationship we wish to develop is personal and much deeper than this. I find if we leave God out of this equation, then we are always winding up following an outward rule rather than developing the substance of love.

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