Matthew 6:1-3 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.”
The last ‘Take Heed’ brings us to the first in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples to take heed not to do their charitable deeds (literally, their righteousnesses) before people, to be seen by them. And like all of the other ‘take heeds,’ Jesus is warning us not merely because it is possible that we might do such a thing, but because it is likely. It is likely that we would be more concerned with what other people see us do than with what God, who sees everything, sees us do.
The warning is linked to hypocrisy. It’s a word that has been coming up a lot lately in my blog, and I am afraid that some of you are getting sick of me talking about it. It is said of St. John the Evangelist, that when he preached, he spoke of nothing but the love of God. He is, after all, called the Beloved Disciple. I on the other hand have boasted often of being the chief hypocrite. So assuming the duties of my office, I will speak more of hypocrisy.
I am writing this blog post on the second morning of my stay at the monastery. Yesterday, the brothers and I had a discussion about the nature of judgement. Someone pointed out that the English word ‘crisis’ is derived from the Greek word for judgement: krisis. A crisis is a judgement because suddenly something is removed from us, something we were expecting and/or depending on. When this expected thing (health, support in its various forms, or merely an expected outcome) is taken away, something is revealed about ourselves, something about the truth of ourselves. We see and are seen without the mask provided by what we had come to expect. The crisis removes the props, the mask, on which we had built our self image. The often elaborate self image we had constructed of ourselves comes tumbling down (like the house built on the sand) and all that is left is the real me, the truth in all of its naked messiness. Crises are judgements because they reveal what’s real.
Then one of the brothers pointed out that the word hypocrite is a Greek compound word made up of the prefix hypo, meaning ‘sub,’ ‘under,’ or ‘below’; and the word kritis, from the word ‘to judge.’ There is a connection in the very word between hypocrisy and judgement. The hypocrite is somehow below judgement, or we might say sub-judging. The hypocrite–which is the Ancient Greek word for actor–is one who avoids the truth, the real, by putting on a mask and playing a role. It seems to me that one important aspect of Jesus’ warning not to do righteous deeds to be seen by others is to help us avoid putting on masks and playing roles. But this is not at all easy to do–like most of what Jesus asks us to do, it is actually impossible to do without mercy and Grace from above.
Roles are a part of the reality of social life. And yet there is a way to fulfil the responsibilities of a role without that role becoming a mask. Without the role becoming a disguise hiding the real you, without the role hiding the truth about yourself (hiding the truth of yourself from others and even from yourself). It is possible not to be defined by a role, but is not easy–thus the warning of Jesus.
Masks and roles are tricky things. For example, it is possible to wear the mask of not wearing a mask. In this “I’m not playing a role,” role, one is intentionally obnoxious, rude and offensive to social sensibilities. It is a play act just as much as any other. A self-conscious attempt to assert one’s identity in appearing not to conform to a social norm is just as hypocritical as attempting to assert one’s identity in appearing to conform. Our identity is not found in appearances. Where, then, is our identity found? Ah, this is yet another difficult matter: Who I am is not easily apparent to me.
Coming to know ourselves is a process, a process that is not at all straight forward, a process that is easily sidetracked. The path to self knowledge intersects many tempting side trails, tempting because the main trail is arduous. The truth about ourselves is not pretty. Like Adam and Eve, we would rather hide behind the fig leaves of self-constructed identities and blame others when our imaginary world doesn’t work out very well. This to us is preferable to confessing our sin, confessing our weakness and fear and confusion. One of the problems with doing righteous acts to be seen by people is that the praise of others reinforces our false image of ourselves. When we act in secret, we know that the little we have done is merely a token of what could, should and ought to be done. Even the sacrifice of our whole life, we know in our heart of hearts is given with some reservation, some fear, some imperfection.
However, unlike the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, God accepts the imperfect offering of our imperfect lives. All He asks is that we not hide, that we see the mess of our lives for what it is: a mess. And from this acknowledgement comes my favourite prayer, “Dear Lord, I am a mess, but I am Your mess.” These two things are necessary. We must hold them in each hand. In the one hand we hold the knowledge of our inadequacy, of our brokenness. This hand we might call the hand of judgement or the hand of the fear of God. In the other hand we hold the love and mercy of God, the mercy that triumphs over judgement. In the first hand we hold an unflinching vision of the corrupted and corrupting life we have willing participated in; and in the other hand we hold the growing vision of a glorified humanity, of the heavenly garment of the New Man already alive in us, but to be fully revealed in the Age to come.
Faith then is the act of holding both, holding both the fear and love of God in our hearts. Faith is also expressed in doing righteousnesses in secret. We do our righteousnesses in secret as much as we can because we want the God who sees in secret to reward us. We should note that the word “openly” is not in the earliest Greek texts. God’s rewarding us, or better, rendering to us, is not necessarily open. The text is not implying that if you do not blow your own trumpet in the streets, God will blow a trumpet for you. Rather, as is the theme of so many of the sayings and parables in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is saying that God will treat us as we treat others: God will forgive us as we forgive others; God will show us mercy as we show others mercy. We do our works of righteousness secretly because the the reward we need from God is mercy, forgiveness, and transformation of heart, none of which is seen publicly–at least not initially. We must take heed to do our righteousnesses secretly, because we know that our wound is in our secret place, in our hearts. But if we are unwilling to acknowledge both the depth of our brokenness and the more profound depth of God’s love, we will spend our life looking externally, performing external acts of righteousness in search of an external cure.
Unfortunately, some of us have been exposed to false theologies that present human weakness as somehow greater than the love of God. Until we shed these false theologies, we will only see God as rejecting us, rejecting us more and more, the more deeply we come to know our brokenness. The god of such false theologies is not the God seen in Christ. Christ welcomed the harlots and the sinners and ate with them. As we become more deeply aware of our brokenness, we find that we are in very good company. The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a wedding banquet. Those invited were too busy with their masks and roles to come. The banquet will be full nonetheless. The blind, the lame and the halt are brought in. If we can just for a moment put down the mask of our respectability and self-righteousness, if we can let ourselves be painfully aware of our blindness, our inability, our failure, then we too will begin to know and even experience a fore-taste of that Banquet of the Kingdom to Come, the Kingdom of the God whose mercy triumphs over judgement.