Professor Alyce McKenzie relays the story one of her students told about sending his 7-year-old daughter to clean up her room during the Saturday morning family chore time. She emerged from her room after five minutes and said to him, “I’m done. Can I watch TV?” Suspicious, he went to investigate. Her room looked clean and pristine.
Until he opened the closet door and was almost buried by the avalanche. He got a book and sat on a stool and read it in her room while she cleaned her closet. With Dad present, she got in gear and almost happily cleaned her closet, putting toys on shelves, clean clothes in drawers and on hangers and dirty clothes and wet towels in the hamper. When she was done she came and hugged him and said: “You’re the best Dad in the world.”
“That’s a sweet story,” Dr. McKenzie writes, “but it’s not just that. It’s also a story that points to our… task and God’s presence with us in it. Our… task is to clean up our closet before we clean up our room. It is to look to our inner motivations and desires before we get preoccupied with how we’re coming across to others.”
Well, that should come as no surprise to us, should it? Jesus had begun the Sermon on the Mount with the ethics of the kingdom, which was all about inner attitudes, and obeying not the letter of the law but the spirit of the law, particularly in the way we behave toward other people. Ethics is about how we practice our faith in strengthening our relationships with others. Now he begins to turn from ethics to piety, the spiritual disciplines through which we practice our faith and strengthen our relationship with God, and we find him doing the same thing he did with ethics: telling his listeners (including us) that piety is not about what we are seen doing, but about our motivation for doing anything at all. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
My take-away from that phrase is this: question your own motives for everything you do. For example, have you ever been out at a restaurant and seen a person or a group of people bowing their heads to pray before they eat? Or maybe you have been one of those people. I have never been one to visibly pray over my food at restaurants when I’m by myself, although I have been with others who asked me to participate, and I have. I think this behavior makes an interesting test case for my statement: question your own motives for everything you do. Obviously, there’s nothing the least bit wrong with giving thanks to God for the provision of food, the hands who prepared it, or the money to purchase it—all of which are from God. But we should ask ourselves, “Why am I praying,” and, “How, then, should I pray?” I can remember discussing this with someone many years back—maybe it was during my seminary days—and the person I was talking to said, “I pray in restaurants because it sets a good example, and is, therefore, a positive witness.” At the time, I probably said something noncommittal, because I felt pretty noncommittal about the whole subject. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Now, however, I would say that this reason—as well-intentioned as it sounds—is a poor reason and, as I read Jesus’ instruction to us this morning, an unbiblical reason.
I understand the motivation given—that it sets a good example for others to see us thanking God for what we have. But we have a fine line to walk here, between Jesus’ saying, several posts ago, “…let your light shine before others, so at they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16), and his saying this morning, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6:1). We certainly don’t want to be accused of hiding our light under a bushel, so which direction applies in this circumstance? Matthew doesn’t make this clear, and that is deliberate on his part. He is writing out of an ancient Jewish scribal tradition that seems to offer conflicting wisdom, but with the intention that it will cause us to stop and think, before proceeding very carefully. Our long history with proverbial wisdom bears this out:
- Look before you leap, but make hay while the sun shines.
- It’s better to be safe than sorry, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
- Haste makes waste, but he who hesitates is lost.
- Patience is a virtue, yet opportunity knocks but once.
- Actions speak louder than words, but the pen is mightier than the sword.
- There’s no place like home and home is where the heart is, but the grass is always greener on the other side, a rolling stone gathers no moss, and you can’t go home again.
- The best things in life are free, but you get what you pay for.
- Too many cooks spoil the broth, but many hands make light work.
- Two’s company and three’s a crowd, but the more the merrier because two heads are better than one.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, but don’t beat a dead horse.
- Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract.
- Variety is the spice of life, but don’t change horses in midstream.
- The bigger the better, but the best things come in small packages.
- Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.
We all know many proverbs that seem to contradict each other. And we almost never use them all at the same time, but the true wisdom of proverbs is that maybe we should use them even when they contradict each other. If it’s true, for instance, that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but, “it’s the thought that counts,” then we need to stop and think about how both of these proverbs can so obviously be true at the same time, and then both live and act in the tension between the two.
Here we have Jesus telling us to let the world see our good works so that God will be glorified in them, and to do our good works in secret so that we are not motivated by human applause. By giving us both, Jesus encourages us to stop and think not only about our actions but also our inner attitudes and motivations. Why am I praying right now? Is it because I want to be in right relationship with God, or is because I want to be seen praying? Those two motivations are utterly different.
So when we bring our offerings and gifts of support for the church’s mission, we should be very private about it. That’s one reason why church members generally use offering envelopes—so that they can give without being seen. And these days, an increasing number of us give to the church electronically, by sending money directly to the church from our bank accounts! And when we pray, it needn’t be a theater production (which is what the Greek word “hypocrite” originally meant). Our prayers are to be heard by God, not by others; in worship, our prayer requests are for the sake of others, and not so that others will be impressed with us. We don’t pile on flowery words in order to sound impressive, because our prayers are only for God’s ears, and he already knows what we’re going to say anyway!
And when you fast… well, wait a minute. How many of you have given an offering to the church in the last month? How many of you have prayed in the last month? How many of you have fasted in the last month?
For some reason, fasting is something that we just don’t do anymore, but I don’t know why. I have fasted before, but not recently (and fasting to have blood work done doesn’t count). But Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples as if they might want to try fasting someday. He says, “When you fast, don’t make a big production out of it, or wear a T-shirt that says, ‘Respect me, I’m fasting.’ Just go about your business in the usual way, so that no one knows you’re fasting.” Fasting is supposed to be a way of concentrating all of our thoughts and actions on God. If we’re thinking about what others think of us, then we’re not thinking about God.
So let’s look back at our closets. Remember, Jesus wants us to clean out our closets before we clean our rooms. In other words, he wants us to straighten up what people can’t see before we worry about what can be seen. We like to present a tidy appearance to the world, but there’s nothing truthful about claiming a clean room and asking to be rewarded when really we’ve just shoveled all of life’s junk into a closet. Jesus would have us clean our closets, rather than keep an inner “safe room” filled with selfish motives and shallow goals. Matthew’s vision of piety applies to both our private lives and the life of the church. He wants the church and its leaders to clean their closets, not just present a scrubbed and smiling face to the world. Honesty, integrity, and transparency glorify God—even when what is revealed is unsavory.
One of the best novels I have ever read in my life is a novel called Glittering Images by Susan Howatch. In it, a young and successful Anglican priest, Charles Ashworth, is asked by his archbishop to investigate the “glittering image” of a bishop in another town. Concerned about the potential for scandal due to the appearance of impropriety, the archbishop wants to know, for sure, whether the church is truly prone to a scandal, or if is merely appearance. Along the way, however, Dr. Ashworth has a spiritual crisis of his own, as he is forced by events to reckon with his own “glittering image,” that is, with his own need to project a false self to the world, while masking the truth about who he is for the sake of appearances. His spiritual director, a monk named Father Jon Darrow, helps him to accept not only the truth about himself but also the truth that pretending to be someone he’s not is the opposite of the authenticity that God desires. As Jesus said, in another context, “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).
So often, we Christians fall into the trap of believing that the church is for saints—that in order to sit in these hallowed pews, we must “live up to” certain expectations, or be found worthy of the legacy of those who sat in them before us. In her New York Times best-selling book, Accidental Saints, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes,
“…it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title ‘Saint’ is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it [in his epistle to the Philippians], “For it is God who is at work in you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones — people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like the were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.
“…[W]e believe in a God who gets redemptive and holy things done in this world through, of all things, human beings, all of whom are flawed.”
Maybe you can relate to some song lyrics that have been particularly poignant for me at times in my life as a Christian, and especially as a pastor. Singer-songwriter Ben Folds sings,
I feel like a quote out of context
Withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gesture and sounds
Got the timing down
It’s uncanny, yeah, you’d think it was me
Do you think I should take a class
To lose my southern accent?
Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck?
I do the best imitation of myself
Ben folds wrote these lyrics as a reflection on the recording industry, and the caricature of his real self that they expected him to present for marketing purposes. And isn’t that what we’re all doing, when we sit in church and pretend that everything’s alright all the time, that we have it all together, that we haven’t made mistakes? We get dressed up, put on our faces—and then cover them with masks, with glittering images, and then we do the best imitation of ourselves. But what Jesus wants is not a church full of hypocrites—that is, a church full of play actors. He wants honesty and integrity for ourselves, so that when those who are broken, or doubtful, or seeking something unknown and unknowable, come into this community of faith, they are welcomed as fellow sinners. The Church is not a showroom for the polished; it’s a repair shop for the broken. It’s not a health spa for the holy; it’s a hospital for the hurting. We don’t go to church in order to show the world how good we are; we go to give thanks for how good God is to us in Jesus Christ.
So then, as we exit the Church to live the Christian life, let us remember to ask ourselves what our motivations are. Who are we trying to impress? If our piety is for God’s sake, then God alone needs to know about it. If it’s for the sake of being recognized, congratulated or even thanked, then it’s not really piety at all. Remember, “all things come to those who wait, but strike while the iron is hot. After all, whatever will be will be, but life is what you make of it.”
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints (New York: Convergent Books, 2015), 7.
 Ben Folds, “Best Imitation of Myself,” Ben Folds Five (Passenger/Caroline: 1995), track 5.