Sunday, 1 September 2013

Your Father Who Sees You In Secret Will Reward You (Passages from Matthew 6)

After deepening the law to include the fullness of the moral law, Jesus turns now to three traditional forms of piety and condemns their misuse; they are almsgiving, praying and fasting. Chapter 6 thus begins:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for they will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (v. 1)

The logic of Jesus’ statement, which he will reiterate for each of the forms of piety, is this: piety is not done for the sake of men, rather for the sake of God. Of what use are these acts if done before men? They bring praise and recognition on the person doing them, which is to completely pervert the true reason for doing them.

Now, what is the true reason for acts of piety? The superficial answer is to get a reward from “your Father who is in heaven,” yet such an answer can easily be misunderstood. One might think that works of piety are a form of coercion of God, as if God were some sort of game-master who gives prizes to good contestants and punishes bad ones – this is far from the truth! We must understand that the use of the term “Father,” prefixed even with the possessive “your” makes this statement a profoundly relational one. We come to our Father as children, glad to give to our fellow siblings, glad to talk to him and give things up for him. Our actions demonstrate a child-like joy in our Father, and the loving reward that he imparts unto us ought to be understood in the context of a relationship between a father and his child – it is not something sought, but something received once again out of joy, whereby the relationship grows once again.

This notion of reward for works may always be a red-light for me, immersed as I am in a profoundly “grace alone” soteriology.[1] I must therefore make even clearer how these works of piety are not done by the merely human will. God does not owe us if we pray, or fast or give alms – we have no right to any reward, for between God and us there is an enormous inequality, for we have received everything from our Creator. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo: “Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due… Our merits are God’s gifts.” Or the words of the Roman Missal: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.[2]

These two notes – that the reward should be understood in relational terms, and that the reward is simply the association God freely makes between the works done by God’s grace and us – serve as a solid foundation for continuing on the examine what Jesus says about alms, prayer and fasting.

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 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. (vv. 2-4)

The grace of God is freely given such that we may properly give alms – but we are only rewarded if we respond to that grace properly. Or more precisely, we must ponder: who do we want to receive the reward from? We may choose to notify hordes of people, and they might see how wonderfully good we have been, and when we are praised by them, we receive the fullness of our reward. Jesus asks us to instead to be God-centred, and so seek the fullness of treasure from God alone: thus, we must not parade our good works for the praise of others, but in secret give alms, almost not even knowing it ourselves, that we may not reward ourselves for our good deeds either. For our Father, who sees in secret, will only then reward us.

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. 5-6)

Once again, we ought not to display our goodness for the world, but instead be in secret with our Father in prayer. God alone must be the ultimate reason and recipient of prayer, and so to pray in public for the public’s approval is an absurdity of pride. This act showcases, moreover, the objective of piety, which is to build that relationship with God. It is an intimate thing, something to be done most often in private, in secret, much like two lovers that enjoy the secluded time of contemplation of each other. We shall examine the Lord’s prayer in another blog article, but it is important to make note of how prayer can take various forms: contemplative, petitionary, penitent,[3] laudatory, et cetera. Once again, all these must be understood in relational terms: God is the object of our highest love, the one to whom our lives must be orientated.

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)

Fasting has a very interesting theology and history within the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it would be difficult to summarize very quickly all the different ways in which fasting is used as a form of piety. It can express dependence on God, penitence, exclusion to prayer, the conscious dethroning of our bellies as gods and idols…many things. Once again, fasting as a pious practice must be done for God and God alone,[4] not done to boost our vainglory.

Whereas almsgiving is intrinsically good, and meritorious when done with the right condition of heart, and as is praying, fasting is a means to an end and can be abused far more than the others. The prophet Isaiah, for instance, calls out the hypocrisy of some Israelites who are using fasting as a means to gain attention, and are displeased when they are unable to coerce God:

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
(Isaiah 58:5-7)

We may draw the threads together as so: God works in hiddenness often, yet sees all. We are to act always out of love for God, and recognize fasting, almsgiving and prayer in their proper place. God’s seeing in secret ensures that we ought not to parade our accomplishments in public, but allow the most important person to see them in secret. It also means that wrongdoing done in secret will also be seen – for those of us who are often deceived that sin done in private is barely sin at all, this commentary on where our good deeds ought to be done also issues a reminder that no place is secret from our heavenly Father, who sees all and judges in righteousness.

Such statements do not negate that we ought to be the light of the world, and not covered or hidden. As the Church of Christ, we are the manifestation of his glory – yet we as individuals ought not receive the praise due to God and God alone.

Before ending, I may also comment on how formulaic these phrases have been. Notice the deep structure in each of these statements – this is no accident. Undoubtedly, the Sermon on the Mount was first transmitted orally, and sentences like these serve as reminders of this – such statements are easily memorized and internalized, especially for heavily oral cultures like the ones that have existed up to fairly recently in human history. If I were attempting to apply historical criticism to these remarks, I think I ought to conclude that these refer to statements only slightly adapted – if at all – from Jesus’ original words. Stylistic differences between the original and that preserved here are most likely simply ones that would make the teaching easier to commit to memory.


[1] Soteriology: the study of salvation. I wish to emphasize the alone – not that other orthodox soteriology is anything other than grace alone, but that for me, the free gift of God must be emphasized above all.
[2] See Catechism, section on merit, CCC 2006-2011. In particular, note the citation of St Thérèse of Lisieux, paragraph 2011.
[3] This is probably the one I have to do most frequently, unfortunately.
[4] Since probably the time of Gandhi, fasting has been used as a political tool for coercion as well as for spiritual and religious practices. Nowadays, “hunger strikes” are a form of protest, often separated for the spirituality that gave birth to the practice of fasting. These are fine in proper context, but I will not be addressing them presently.

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