Hiding In Plain Sight – SOTM Series (7)

In our last exploration of the Sermon on the Mount, we finished off Matthew chapter 5.  While we know, of course, that Jesus did not speak in chapter or verse, the beginning of chapter 6 does marks a shift in the emphasis of the SOTM.  The shift is critical, so take a moment and reread all of Matthew 5 before moving on.  It’ll just take a few minutes.

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  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 honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

While reading this portion of Scripture on its own may seem like a worthy reminder about humility, it would not have been missed by the people listening to Jesus that, moments earlier, He had said:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Was Jesus contradicting Himself?  How are we meant to be a light before men, not hiding it away, while at the same time doing our good works in secret?  This tension is one that we will need to wrestle with always.  Working it out is no simple thing.  However, we can learn some key lessons from Jesus’ words.

Jesus made it clear in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6) that we are called to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  As we explored several weeks ago,  true righteousness is not about external acts of goodness alone, but about a life actively dedicated to loving God and loving others (see SOTM 3 here).  It is this internal transformation of the heart that produces the fruit in the external- words, deeds, etc.  Yet in this Scripture Jesus warns again “acts of righteousness” (or as other version say “practicing your righteous”) before others.   He is warning us against equating the external fruits of righteousness with the transformation of the heart.

Jesus followers might very well have heard his teaching up until this point and used it to justify overthrowing the traditions and laws of Judaism.  Some might even have used it to incite violent insurrection against Rome.  While Jesus was calling for a radically new way to live in the world, He was very clear that this way of living was not meant to be the agent of change in the world.  Jesus did not come to start a revolution that wanted to overturn the world, but rather to overturn our hearts.  Only then would the world be truly and honestly changed.  When Jesus said “When you give to the needy…”, He is making it VERY clear that external acts of righteousness are necessary.  Faith of the heart is inseparable from faithfulness in life- word and deed (James 2:14-17).  As Dorothy Day once said: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”

If we confuse righteous action for righteousness, we make a God out of activism.  Only Christ alone is righteous.  We do not do acts of righteousness- be they justice, mercy or peace- so that people will look to us, see our merit and be convinced of our faith.  Rather, it is the very presence righteousness, not diluted or distracted from by our involvement, that points to Christ.  We must decrease so that He might increase.

We face significant pitfalls in this dynamics tension.  As Jesus warns, we can become so focused on “achieving” the external acts of righteousness, convinced that by doing these acts our hearts are changes, that end up merely aping truth.  Like the Greek actors on a stage (those hypocrites), we pretend to be on the outside what it untrue of our true identity.  Conversely, we can oppose this external pretense, so seen as legalism, claiming a “freedom in Christ”, leading to lives of unworthy action (or inaction).  The lesson for both extremes remains the same.  Jesus calls us to a new identity of the heart that produces a radical new way of living, but one that does not seek to draw attention to itself, but points only and always to Jesus Christ.

Together we ask ourselves some hard questions.  In the last year, month, week, even 24 hours, how has your heart changed?  How has that change worked itself out in how you live?  For if it has not changed you life, is your heart truly changed?  Also, in the last year, month, week, even 24 hours, have you embraced new ways of radical obedience to Christ?  If so, what heart change has accompanied it?  For if your actions is only out of external adherence to expectations and not changes of the heart, are your actions truly righteous?  These are difficult questions we must look at regularly.

St. Francis of Assisi lived in this tension in powerful ways.  Of this righteousness one biographer said of him:

“Among the saints, he was the most saintly, and among sinners, he looked like one of them.”

May it be so of us too.

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