February 22, 2012

Your Father Who Sees in Secret (Ash Wednesday)

Passage: Matthew 6:3-4
Service Type:

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.

The observance of Lent by Christians is typically practised in one of two directions—or some combination of both—the directions of giving up and taking up.  On giving up, for example, we want to shed sin—give up or be shriven of those things that divert us from our faith walk.  On taking up, many make lent a time for adding or renewing some habit of what we call spiritual/faith practices like prayer or study of scripture.  Our scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are focussed in this way.  Psalm 51 is the confession of sin—on giving up.  Matthew 6 is a discussion by Jesus of our faith practises—on taking up.

I invite you to reflect with me on this “taking up” aspect of lent; on Jesus’ teaching with regard to certain faith practices.  “Alms-giving, prayer, and fasting” sounds for many to have the same sort of appeal as “dieting and exercise”.  To the young person it reminds them of being stuck in a classroom taking up boring subject matter.  Let us be honest.  Even for many Christians the call to these faith practices sounds like advertisements for Buckley’s cough medicine—it tastes awful but it works.  Still, Jesus speaks as if his followers are engaged in these things.  His statement—“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them”—assumes that we are engaged in practices of piety.

Think for a moment about the joys of intimate relationship.  A few weeks ago Valerie and I spent a few days at a resort with my step-daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren.  I recall some of the great fun we had sitting around the table at a meal; of the joy of hearing a grandchild say something that fills your heart with smiles.  These special moments—that pass so quickly—would never occur except for the habit of making meals and sitting down to eat together.  And getting and keeping a young child at the table is often a challenge—yet the results are blessing to life.

You can then extrapolate to so many other areas of life and understand that the joys and blessings of life are experienced in the midst of we call the habits of life, the practices of keeping life together.  When Jesus speaks of “practising your piety” here in his Sermon on the Mount he is addressing the faith habits that are part of our relationship with God; he is talking of the things that are for intimacy with God.

1. The word translated “piety” is the word for righteousness.  It was the subject Jesus introduced earlier in this sermon when he said (5:20) “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Under this title of “your righteousness” Jesus went on to address our relationships with others—love of neighbour—speaking about anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies.

In the first part of chapter 6 the focus now changes to our acts of righteousness with respect to relationship with God—love of God—and in this context he speaks of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting; acts of piety.  The secrecy commended in these acts is because their focus is in relationship with God—hence the warning to not do them to be seen by others.  When Jesus says “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” the “your Father” is striking.  Most did not speak of relationship with God so intimately—“your Father”.  Clearly Jesus means us to understand that these faith practices are about our relationship with God.

The secrecy of these practises is not, I think, to be taken as hiddenness.  Jesus is not saying faith is something to be kept to yourself; after all he has said earlier in the sermon that you are the light of the world.  Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t pray in public, or ever speak about fasting.  Jesus is speaking hyperbole here evident in the picture of not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  How exactly does one keep the left hand from knowing what the right hand is doing?   Clearly Jesus is speaking hyperbole.  The point being that the focus of your alms giving is not to be on the act of your giving but on God.

Charles Spurgeon insightful comment is helpful to us here.  He wrote: “Let us hide away our charity--yes, hide it even from ourselves. Give so often, and so much as a matter of course, that you no more take note that you have helped the poor than that you have eaten your regular meals. Do your alms without even whispering to yourself, "How generous I am!" Do not thus attempt to reward yourself. Leave the matter with God, who never fails to see, to record, and to reward.”

G. K Chesterton said “Music with dinner in an insult both to the cook and the violinist”.  There is in this pithy saying a call to attentiveness that each relationship deserves.  The person who does their acts of piety—practises of relationship with God—to be seen by others insults both God and others.  God is treated as trivial and expendable and people are treated as objects to be manipulated for my own status.  Jesus said you got your reward—people think you are really spiritual.

The theme of single-mindedness was a constant theme to which John Wesley returned time and again in his preaching; indeed it is a theme addressed in many places in the Bible.  The apostle James wrote a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.  Psalm 12 teaches that ungodliness is marked by speaking with a double heart.  We find duplicity abhorrent in our human relationships; a person telling us one thing while having another objective in mind.

In Jesus’ sermon one of the more difficult sayings to interpret follows Jesus’ admonition not to fake piety and to treasure up treasures in heaven. It reads: “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”  The King James translates this text more literally; “So if your eye is single, you whole body is full of light”.  I think that Jesus is making reference to this idea of single-mindedness.  The practices of faith designed for relationship with God are to be engaged with their purpose in full view.  To use them for some other purpose is to render them useless.  As Jesus underscores in his sayings about alms-giving, prayer, and fasting, duplicity destroys.

2.  Bo Lazoff in his book It's a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice, records a conversation he had with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—Carlebach was also a musician.  Rabbi Carleebach said, "Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental."  Lazoff  asked, "Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?"  Rabbi Carlebach answered, "To be as accident-prone as possible."

There is truth in Rabbi Carlebach’s observation.  It is true that God is absolutely free and needs nothing from us.  God’s freedom however is never capriciousness.  A Christian’s faith is indeed initiated and sustained by God.  Spiritual practices are not to be conceived as levers that cause God to spring into action.  The marvel is that God is faithful in meeting us in the means he calls us to be engaged in.  How we are sustained in faith through the sacrament of communion, for example, is a mystery and cannot be fully described; nonetheless we experience his sustaining grace because of his faithfulness.

The marvelous paradox of our relationship with God is that grace undergirds rather than undermines our full engagement.  While not dependent on us we are fully engaged because the fullness of grace creatively includes the fullness and completeness of our human response in the equation.”

3.  I heard a story recently about the practices of secrecy by the Apple Corporation.  The projects that one department are working on are kept secret from other departments in the company.  Employees are to commit themselves to this “not talking of their work” policies given the economic impact of being first to market with a product—consider the impact of the iPhone for example.  It was also reported that is some instances of their work new hires are working on fake projects for months the test their ability to not talk—so important is the principle of secrecy for some of their work.

When Jesus commends us to his principle of secrecy with respect to our faith practices of relationship with God it is not some sort of test neither to see if we are worthy nor to generate some sort of economic or competitive advantage.   God does not have to compete with anyone to be God.  The fact that “your Father sees in secret” is not because secrecy is a kind of superior way of doing things.  God’s ability to see is not hampered by any of the things that restrict our seeing; the fact that he sees in secret is our blessing because we don’t have to wonder if we are being heard in prayer or blessed in fasting or the help we offer unnoticed.

Some hear “your Father sees in secret” and hear “cosmic snoop”.  The text tells us that his desire is to reward us—to bless us with the good he has in mind for us.

We often do not recognize the impact of the Bible on Western culture; for example we euphemistically speak of those who promote their accomplishments as those who “blow their own horn”.  It comes from Jesus’ saying here—“do not sound a trumpet before you”.  We have no record that people actually doing that; Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point, perhaps even using a little humour.

But before we are too harsh on those who engage in such self-promotion we might consider a reason we do such things.  Deep down we want to count for something.  It is an amazing thing that we can be standing on the street of a busy city and feel invisible; feel that no one is taking notice of me.  It is a lonely and painful thing to bear.

The wonder of our relationship with the Father is that we are far from invisible.  You are known and taken note of and supported.  The fact that your Father sees in secret means that I am never invisible.

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.