The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 6:1-6. Jesus said,
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.In this passage Jesus begins to address the three great acts of righteousness, or devotion, or piety that were recognized and practiced in some way by all the Jewish people of his time. Those three acts were: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the first two.
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.
In verse one Jesus states the main principle that he is going to apply to all three acts of piety: "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."
Performing acts of righteousness to be seen by others was not simply a problem for Jews in the first century. If we are honest, it is a temptation for us as well.
How much of our giving to the needy is done to be seen by others? Merely for the purpose of a tax deduction? Or to make others think more highly of us? Even the way we collect offerings in church has the potential to go awry ... because it is public, visible. We may not sound a trumpet, but we don't mind if others happen to see what we give, do we?
The real question is one of motive: whom are we trying to please? Ourselves? Others? Or God?
It is difficult, perhaps, in our time to do all our giving in secret. Organizations will send us an accounting of our giving with a thank-you note. So maybe we cannot do all of our giving in secret. But that doesn't mean we can't do something quietly, while no one is looking, just to help one other person, close by, who is in need, not a large corporation that is doing some work in a distant land.
And we must ask ourselves some of the same questions about prayer. Do we pray the same way in public that we do in private? Most likely not. There is nothing wrong with public prayer. We need to pray in church, with others, maybe in a home group, or a Sunday school class. Praying over our meal in a restaurant can be a good act, if we do it for the right reason.
But there is something far more valuable about private prayer, isn't there? That is where we can really connect with God. And perhaps if we are avoiding doing that work of private prayer, is it perhaps because we are avoiding God? Are we afraid of silence? Afraid of being alone? Afraid of finding out who we really are when no one else is watching? Of course, God already knows everything about us, so there is no use hiding. But we can choose to withhold ourselves from God, or not. And perhaps that is what prayer is all about.
C. S. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer...
We are always completely, and therefore equally, known to God. That is our destiny whether we like it or not. But though this knowledge never varies, the quality of our being known can. A school of thought holds that "freedom is willed necessity." Never mind if they are right or not. I want this idea only as an analogy. Ordinarily, to be known by God is to be, for this purpose, in the category of things. We are like earthworms, cabbages, and nebulae, objects of divine knowledge. But when we (a) become aware of the fact--the present fact, not the generalisation--and (b) assent with all our will to be so known, then we treat ourselves, in relation to God, not as things but as persons. We have unveiled. Not that any veil could have baffled this sight. The change is in us. The passive changes to the active. Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view.
To put ourselves thus on a personal footing with God could, in itself and without warrant, be nothing but presumption and illusion. But we are taught that it is not; that it is God who gives us that footing. For it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry "Father." By unveiling, by confessing our sins and "making known" our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, descending, becomes a Person to us. (Letter IV)