A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Not Making a Show of It: A Lectionary Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Every one of us is motivated by something. We have motives as we go about our employment. We have motives in our various relationships. In fact, we are motivated by something in everything we do. Some persons work a particular job primarily because they love it. They could not imagine themselves doing anything else. Others may not care for their job and would retire tomorrow if possible, but they need to earn money to put food on the table. I know some professors who are motivated to pass wisdom on to their students; and because they are so motivated, they go the extra mile for their sake. I know some other professors who would prefer to spend their days in research and never teach a class if possible, but they have to eat and pay the bills and tutelage is the only way to do so.

We are all motivated by something and not all motives are created equal, which is what Jesus is getting at in Matthew 6. John Wesley states of Jesus,
He has laid before us those dispositions of soul which constitute real Christianity; the inward tempers contained in that "holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord;" the affections which, when flowing from their proper fountain, from a living faith in God through Christ Jesus, are intrinsically and essentially good, and acceptable to God. He proceeds to show, in this chapter, how all our actions likewise, even those that are indifferent in their own nature, may be made holy, and good and acceptable to God, by a pure and holy intention. Whatever is done without this, he largely declares, is of no value before God. Whereas whatever outward works are thus consecrated to God, they are, in his sight, of great price.
Christianity is  lived in the midst of community. In Christianity there can be no Lone Rangers. Wesley said that religion is inherently social. To turn it into a solitary thing is to destroy it. Thus, it stands to reason that there is a public nature to our piety and our service.

It is inevitable that there will be those who will pray in public, but the motivation for such prayer is to speak sincerely to God on behalf of the community of faith. Prayers are vertical offerings to God, not horizontal speeches meant to demonstrate one's oratory ability.

It is also inevitable that others will see us in service since the mission of the church is a communal endeavor. But our giving is for the sake of God's kingdom, not a public display for the purpose of showing others how generous we are. Of course, that is usually not the problem in the twenty-first century Western church. We tend to want to keep our giving private, not because we don't want people to know how generous we are; rather we want to hide the fact that we are not giving nearly what we should because we have devoted so much of our financial resources to the things which Jesus said, "rot away" (6:20).

The same motivations are true for all of our works of piety and justice-- and such works cannot be properly described as kingdom work unless they point the way to the king, Jesus Christ. Our motivation must be for the sake of God's kingdom work in this world, not for the kudos we hope to receive.

Author Saul Bellow wrote about a rabbi who lived in a small Jewish town in Russia. The rabbi had a secret. Every Friday morning the rabbi disappeared for several hours. The people of his congregation liked to tell people that during his absence from them their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God. When a stranger moved into town and heard this explanation for the rabbi's weekly departure, he was not convinced. So he decided to find out what was really going on. The next Friday morning, he hid by the rabbi's house, waiting and watching. As usual, the rabbi got up and said his prayers. But unlike other mornings of the week, he then dressed in peasant clothes. He grabbed an ax and wandered off into the woods to cut some firewood. With the man watching from afar, the rabbi then hauled the wood to a shack on the outskirts of the village where an old woman and her sick son lived. He left them the wood, enough for a week, and then went quietly back home.

After seeing what the rabbi did, the stranger decided to stay in the village and join the congregation. From then on, whenever he heard one of the villagers say, "On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven," the newcomer quietly added, "If not higher."

The rabbi had a secret. He didn't tell anyone his secret. And, although, as a rule, rabbis don't intentionally follow the teachings of Jesus, in this case he took Jesus more seriously than some Christians.

So whether our kingdom works are done in secret or in public, let us do them not for our recognition, but for the glory of God. As Jesus himself says, "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

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