“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;”
A dialogue last week:
Nate—I should buy a stole (clergy sash).
Nate—For when I pray in front of people (at a vigil or protest).
A standard approach to scripture is that Jesus said ____ but what he really meant was ______. Jesus said love your enemy but what he really meant was… Jesus said if you want to enter the Kingdom sell everything and give to the poor but what he really meant was… Admittedly this seems to be a classic example of this—Jesus said don’t pray in public but what it really meant is don’t pray in public unless you very intentionally are making a spectacle of it so as to increase your power and persuasion in a public debate in which you are trying to change a public policy or highlight an injustice. Jesus said don’t pray with great show in public but what he really meant was….So, while I obviously think public witness can be appropriate we should not be too quick to assume that it is always appropriate or all manners are appropriate. Really, if we take this passage seriously we must allow that it may not be appropriate. Just because a church has a particular Office of Public Witness (of which I happen to be the director) does not necessarily make it A-Ok.
Rather than dive into a presentation of organizing strategy in the steam of King and Gandhi and civil society mobilization—however useful that would be—I will consider this particular passage, which is the third installment of a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and see where that leads us.
In the first sermon of the series, Jenn got us ready for the whole sermon on The Mount and suggested that the beatitudes (The Blessed are’s…) as the churches constitution. Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted, is more a description of the kingdom of God than a set of instructions. Jeff continued on with a string of “You’ve heard it said’s…). Jeff observed that learning to live by the difficult commands is similar to running an ultramarathon. Not only do you need to start at a short distance before going super long, but along the way, while super tired, you just need to take one more step.
Last week our verses challenged our bad stuff—don’t murder-don’t speak badly-don’t be angry. This week we get challenged on our good stuff. Pray rightly. Fast rightly. Do acts of justice rightly.
Essentially, don’t do these things publicly for “piety points” pray like you mean it but don’t make a show. On giving, don’t even let you left hand know what your right hand is doing—secret to the point of absurdity—since our left and right hands are connected in the middle by a brain.
“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.
2 “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.
When we read this again we see that it is slightly more complicated than just “be secretive” or “don’t show off.” The doing this publicly or privately seems to be directly related to reward. If public, you are rewarded by the public. If privately you will be rewarded by God.
However, public actions leading to rewards only happen if you are doing it in a place where such an action is rewarded. Sometimes such prayer would be mocked. At other times acts of justice or righteousness leads to attack. Thinking back to the beginning of the Sermon we read, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”
3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “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. 6 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.
Now of course those who disagree with the particular public forms of praying will likely call the others hypocrites. When I was in high school there was the yearly prayer around the flagpole. The point, I believe, to encourage others to seek God. In retrospect, I imagine this also had layers of God and country theology that I now would find concerning. These days most public praying I do is of a different sort aimed at challenging a particular public policy or demonstrating solidarity with other religions. This passage challenges both of these to consider how one’s self is acting hypocritically and has implications between me and God.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
One commentator notes that this points to the practice of trying to impress the deity with elaborate rhetoric (Boring and Craddock).
This challenge to wordiness is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”
Of course, wordiness is rather relative—compared to the Quaker waiting worship we got a taste of earlier, typical Brethren prayer is wordy but compared to the Episcopal liturgy it is rather simple. But compared to monastic orders that take vows of silence even Quakers just can’t be quiet.
Fortunately, we are provided with an example (which of course does not readily solve this question). The prayer Jesus models essentially functions like a YouTube video of instruction. You can Youtube nearly everything—Jenn recently both brushed up on a certain type of statistical analysis as well as learned how to fix our blinds via YouTube (she may have said that her fixing the blinds rather than just throwing them away and buying new ones was an act of political resistance). I started typing “how to…” into YouTube. The first entry was…any guesses? How to make slime (which may or may not have been useful preparing for the potluck after church). Not far down the list was the slightly less useful how to tie a tie and then bake a cake.
So, after a few instructions like don’t be wordy or be like a hypocrite standing in front of others to receive praise while praying we get a demo prayer.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial.
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I would like to go back to Jeff’s illustration of the ultramarathon from last week. He rightly noted that in training and completion the runner of such a race must persist in pushing forward—making small progress toward what may seem like an unattainable distance (at 4 hours into a race one starts to get tired so how do you think about another 8 hours?) You can’t think about it like that but in smaller more manageable bits. So, I affirm Jeff’s illustration but while musing on this (appropriately while running hills on Wednesday morning) I noted one risk. At least some of us—perhaps it is a particularly American or privileged person’s risk—the risk of this illustration is that we have a tendency to assume that if we just put our minds and backs into it we can succeed. This over-confidence (arrogance?), while it may lead us to push to succeed, also may push us to hurt our families by overcommitting or blame the victim or the unsuccessful or be devastated when things don’t work out the way we want. At the finish line of my first big race there was a woman with a full leg brace. She had apparently run through what I presume was at least a little pain to finish a 70 mile trail race. At the end she collapsed. She had fractured her femur. A recent issue of Trail Runner Magazine tells of a guy who in his first in his first 100 mile race had a 1 hour lead. Now this is a long race and not 100 meter dash, so leads are not usually merely fractions of seconds but a 1 hour lead is still huge. Not only was he in the lead but was on track to set the course record. However, at mile 990 he took a wrong turn. Coming out within view of an aid station but needed to back track and ended up not even having a top ten finish much less a record win.
This section not only challenges our motives in giving and piety but the example prayer makes abundantly clear that we not only need God but must acknowledge this in prayer. It is both audacious—“Our? Father?, the Creator, the divine—as well as pointing to our utter dependence. It asks boldly for sustenance but only for bread and only daily—enough to survive. Rescue us! Forgive us! Save us from a time of trial! It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.
This week revealed this need for reliance. A child of this congregation found that his cancer treatment hasn’t worked. A spouse’s possibility of returning to this country was put in jeopardy because of policy that targets the Middle East and Muslims. Work was overwhelming. A body kept being sick. And the unopened emails in my inbox passed 15,000.
It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.
After the prayer, Jesus returns to the formula. The prayer teaches reliance on God. Maybe he imagines the disciples thinking—ah! We have a spiritual practice that demonstrates reliance—fasting. (which would make sense). But…the old tendency remains to make too much of this for the sake of being seen and making much of this enacted dependence by looking the part—in this case, dismal.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This week I felt dismal. This week many people experienced deep difficulties. As we go out this week may this prayer that we were taught to pray remind us to turn to God in reliance. While I find the illustration of the long race helpful for the challenging teachings of chapter 5, we are reminded that it is not always enough to take one more step. It is not always enough to take just one more step—we must turn to God.