How can we talk about always telling the truth and being honest, if we are also keeping secrets and refusing to share with one another?
The love (without hypocrisy) Jesus longs for
Ash Wednesday | Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
One of the historic battles around Ash Wednesday is based on this gospel passage.
A church fight, as epic as they come; over ashes. To wipe or not to wipe. On the way out, do we hit the bathroom to remove the ashes so we aren’t seen “practicing our piety before others”? Or do we leave it on as a form of evangelism?The idea of keeping secrets bothers me. Click To Tweet
This is a real fight. I’m only half-joking. People take this very seriously.
It was a thing long before we started talking about Ashes to Go or ministry in the street.
And I think that it is only a thing because we’ve just read this gospel passage which sounds an awful lot like an encouragement to have a secret faith.
This is what the evangelist actually says: when you give alms, give them in secret so that your left hand (the devil’s hand) doesn’t know what your right (GOD’s hand) is doing.
When you pray, lock yourself in the closet so others can’t see you, and pray in secret.
When you fast, just go about your business in public, so that your fast may be a secret.
This idea, that we keep our faith secret sounds good and prudent, but is a very troubling idea, for secrets cause conflicts and jealousy, which allow manipulation and unkind motives to enter into our relationships.
The idea of keeping secrets bothers me. It bothers me that Jesus would tell us to keep our faith secret in the same way that it bothers me when talking to my children about secrets. How can we talk about always telling the truth and being honest, if we are also keeping secrets and refusing to share with one another?
We take this thinking and run down the hall of personal faith, passing the images of our predecessors, our loved ones, in all their glory. Each a saint of his or her own (relative) making. Good people, caring people, faithful people.
A faith that was deep and often deeply personal. A faith they refused to share with anyone; even their own children, even their own spouses! Perhaps even a faith of silence and quiet rejection.
And we think of our faith in such personal terms. Always. We do.
But faith is about relationship. It’s at least about one relationship: our relationship with GOD. And the many ways we see GOD. And Jesus elsewhere reminds us that the greatest commandment is loving GOD and loving neighbors as ourselves. There’s nothing personal about love. It’s a relationship thing. It’s an intimate affair. It is a struggle to be honest with other people. That’s where faith is.
The Sermon on the Mount
This gospel passage is from chapter 6 of Matthew, putting it in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. If we’re talking about keeping our faith secret here, where does Jesus begin the sermon? What is at the beginning of Matthew chapter 5?
Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful <Action! That’s not secret!>…Blessed are the pure in heart….Blessed are the peacemakers <standing between warring parties, jumping into the breach and rejecting war, there’s nothing secret about peacemaking.>…Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Then Jesus keeps going, talking about the law and the way it is really fulfilled. He talks about anger and hatred and adultery and marriage and violence, overturning your hopes for retaliation and justification. He pushes past your expectation of feeling good about hurting someone else. It’s never OK to cause someone else to sin.
He ends the chapter, chapter 5, right before today’s passage, with a talk about love. He says
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?
Be peacemakers. Step out. Be GOD’s children. And love. Even the unlovable. Even the one who hurt you. Love grandly and audaciously.
It’s about the love.
So when the tone changes in chapter 6, and this very public call to love and make peace is shifting to practicing faith in secret, we might feel even more confused. How can we go from love your enemies to pray in your closet?
Well, what if he doesn’t really mean it like that? Isn’t it more likely that Jesus doesn’t like the hypocrisy of public pronouncements that are devoid of love? And intimacy? And true relationship?
Jesus’s talk of secrecy is not put up against public professions of faith in general, or in the abstract, but public professions of faith that are falseor selfish or self-serving.
Jesus’s teaching builds on love – love of GOD, love of neighbor – and he does so in the knowledge that some will get it and some won’t. And some will get it and still, somehow think that love means torturing people or hating them or giving them “tough love”. That love is purchasable or love can be traded or bartered. That love can be moved and changed and manipulated. That love is for sale.
So the question we’re being asked today, as we ponder our own mortality and challenge ourselves to observe a holy Lent – to see all that GOD is trying to show us and make GOD our primary focus, our question in the midst of all of that is this: how might we love?
Love the stranger and the enemy, the neighbor and even the hypocrite. How might we love them? Even the one of notorious sin or who nearly shattered community. How might we love them?
With grace. And understanding. And deep concern for them. With prayer because GOD knows we need it. That they, even they, might learn something important this Lenten season.
And so do we.