Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Piety as a publicity stunt

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July 22, 2012 by jmar198013

[Matt. 6.1-18: Hidden practices of piety] “Be careful not to turn your good works into a publicity stunt. That won’t get you anywhere with your heavenly Father.

 “So when you give to charities or provide relief to the needy, don’t use it as a marketing campaign to impress the neighbors, like the phony do-gooders. I tell you what, when their neighbors pat them on the back, that’s all the good they’re going to get from it. So whenever you give, don’t even congratulate yourself for doing a good deed. Then your Father will notice the hidden generosity, and congratulate you.

  “And don’t pray like phony do-gooders, who love to get themselves invited to pray at big public events and religious rallies and prayer breakfasts hosted by politicians, so they can gain publicity and exposure. I tell you what, that free publicity is all they’re getting out of it. But when you pray, lock yourself in the basement and have a private conversation with your Father. He appreciates what you share with him in private, and will give you a personal response.

 “Likewise, don’t pray like people who don’t know God as their Father. They ramble on and on because they think they have to wear God out begging and pleading to get a response. You don’t need to prod and goad your heavenly Father like that, because he already knows what you need before you even ask. So pray like this: ‘Heavenly Father of us all, may you be acknowledged as the only God. May your empire be established, and may people do your will—as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today whatever we need to make it through the day. Forgive our unmet obligations, just as we forgive those who default on their obligations to us. Don’t let us test you with our doubts; rescue us from evil.’ Praying those words obligates you to forgive people who do you wrong. Do that and your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you won’t forgive others, your Father won’t forgive the wrongs you’ve done.

  “And when you fast, don’t be conspicuous about it like the phony do-gooders. They find sly ways to slip it into the conversation that they’re fasting, so that other people will be impressed by their conviction and discipline. I tell you what, the applause of their neighbors is all they’re getting out of it. But when you fast, be completely inconspicuous about it, so that your fast is just between you and God. Then your Father, who knows about your hidden hunger, will fill you up.” (Matt. 6.1-18)

Following his interpretation of Torah in Matt. 5.21-48, Jesus turns his attention to three common spiritual disciplines: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (6.1-18). Glen Stassen (“The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 [2003], 283-85) and Dale Allison (“The Configuration of the Sermon on the Mount,” in Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005], 185-87) note the tidy parallelism that binds this section together. In 6.1, Jesus levies a broad warning: if you make a spectacle of your piety, don’t expect a reward from God. The words on alms, prayer, and fasting that follow apply that central thesis to those practices. The careful reader will notice that each pericope (save for the intrusion of the Lord’s Prayer) is structured almost exactly alike. The pious practice is named, and a contrast is presented between public practice that gets honor from men, and private practice that receives honor from God.

Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 74-76) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1963], 172-79) note that Matt. 6.1ff introduces a very real tension into the Sermon. Hauerwas articulates the tension thus: “How are we to understand Jesus telling us that our light should shine before others (Matt. 5:16) and yet it seems that we are to give alms in secret?” (Matthew, 74). This is a fair question. Bonhoeffer answers it by referring to an attitude Jesus names “not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (in my rendering, I have “not congratulating yourself for doing a good deed”). Says Bonhoeffer: “If the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, if we become conscious of our hidden virtue, we are forging our own reward instead of that which God had intended to give us in his own good time. But if we are content to carry on with our life hidden from our eyes, we shall receive our reward openly from God” (Cost of Discipleship, 178). Once we have so apprehended Jesus’ instructions in Matt. 6.1-18, there is no fundamental tension between the claim that when the world sees our good deeds they will glorify God (Matt. 5.16), and Jesus’ word that we are to hide our good deeds. Rather, Matt. 6.1-18 tells us that it is the very hiddenness of our good deeds that allows the world to ascribe honor to God, rather than to Christians. The honor that Christians may rightly receive is the honor ascribed us by God, honor which radiates from God.

This explanation makes sense in light of a passage like Isa. 49.1-7, which reveals that God begins work on his servant in the hiddenness of the womb, and in the unfolding of the servant’s life through time. The servant is God’s “secret weapon.” For sure, the servant will be openly honored by God, but this will take place in God’s good time. Similar are Jesus’ parables about the leaven and the mustard seed. These parables describe God’s hidden work that comes to fruition in God’s time. To be called into community by Jesus, as the Sermon on the Mount does, is an invitation to participate in God’s time. Our time is not lost–that is, our hidden piety is not wasted–because it is assumed into God’s time, gathered up into his kingdom. Returning to the servant described in Isa. 49, we, like him, might be tempted to say, “My labor has been in vain.” Not so, for it is God who perfects the work we do to his glory.

Again, as we have noted so often before in this series, God’s work through Jesus’ Cross serves as our template. The hidden righteousness to which we are called, which we are promised is not wasted but gathered up into God’s time, is animated by the hopeful patience of disciples. John Howard Yoder explains this well: “The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience … The triumph of the right is sure … because of the power of the resurrection, and not because of any calculation of causes and effects … The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection” (The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd. ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 232). Lest the church forget, the logic of Cross and Resurrection itself was hidden from Jesus’ disciples until God, in his good time, revealed it to them. The truth of Cross and Resurrection removes from disciples the burden of consequentialism, allowing us to self-forgetfully pursue the vocation and task God has given us, and leaving outcomes entirely in his hands. That is what it means to participate in God’s time.

In conclusion, this understanding of Jesus’ words in Matt. 6.1-18 is precisely why I mistrust most forms of Christian activism. I know I will catch a lot of flack from both the so-called Christian Right and mainline Christians alike for saying this. But I cannot help but wonder if our prayer breakfasts, prayer vigils, peace walks, prayers around flag poles (what godly reason might we have for doing that?), organized boycotts, picketing of abortion clinics, and public endorsements of partisan platforms, do not in fact instantiate the piety-as-publicity of which Jesus warns us in Matt. 6.1-18. Are these not, in fact, brazen attempts to dominate the public space, rather than merely inhabit it? Do these tactics not draw attention to virtues we want others to ascribe to us, rather than honor we would have them ascribe to our heavenly Father? Further, do they not suppose that the way to shine our light is to participate in the time of our world, by the tactics of our world, rather than participating in God’s time? Are they not, in fact, embodiments of a consequentialism that will not ultimately trust God for outcomes, but rather try to force his hand (something Jesus warns about in his words on prayer in this section)? In light of what Jesus says here, I would argue that churches need to find distinctively Christian ways to confront the challenges of their particular milieus, rather than trying to accommodate the world by adopting the world’s tactics. Distinctively Christian responses would be those that cooperate with God’s time. What that might look like for particular communities, I cannot say, for I am but a scribe. That will be left up to the elders, prophets, and teachers of those churches in their particularities.

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One thought on “Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Piety as a publicity stunt

  1. Brad Stanton says:

    Most Christians don’t act like Christians, that is a big problem.

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