Good morning, Christ Church!
One of the real concerns I have about our society’s present conversation is the lack of emphasis on ethics and the living of moral lives. Yes, we hear a great deal about “lies,” “fake news,” “draining the swamp,” and what it means to be an American from the perspective of competing ideological points of view. And it is heartening to witness the awakening to the racial injustices on which our nation is founded, that Black Lives Matter, and the sense that the second chapter of the Civil Rights Movement is now underway.
But it seems to me that we have abandoned any real dialogue about ethics, what it is, and why it is so essential to the well-being of any community seeking to live together peaceably. Perhaps our commitment to “individualism” makes any shared sense of moral conduct impossible. Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand were right and the only real philosophy is about the will to power in order to win, thereby relieving us of any need to focus on altruism and the concern for others. Perhaps we have even moved beyond immorality, lowering the bar on human conduct altogether, and settling on amorality instead. Ethics is replaced by “the survival of the fittest.”
As one who believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I don’t accept that premise. Furthermore, as defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, religion is “any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy…any system of beliefs, practices, ethical values, etc. resembling, suggestive of, or likened to such a system.”
All of that definition applies to the Sermon on the Mount. As we have seen in chapter 5, the natural state for a disciple of Jesus is “blessedness.” This blessedness is rooted in a deepening relationship with God through Christ and is shaped by the presence of the Holy Spirit and a desire to honor God through the fulfillment of all that the law and the prophets have revealed. We are called to be the salt of the earth. We are called to be light to the world. We are to share this ethical “system” when interacting with our neighbors, never in any critical fashion, but only with grace. Indeed, evangelism understood correctly is never about browbeating, manipulation, and condemnation. It is, simply, an invitation to explore belief in Jesus, and the moral approach to life he offers, in love.
Now, we turn to chapter 6 of Matthew. Here, Jesus teaches us about what that Christian conduct looks like on a daily basis. Yes, we are not of the world, but for the time being we are in the world. How we choose to live our lives does indeed matter.
Faithfully in Christ,
P.S. One book that I think really goes to the heart of our present circumstances is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Even though he wrote this essay almost ninety years ago, his thesis is just as applicable now as it was then. I will forewarn you that it is not a page-turner! But it is well worth the exploration.
“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. 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. 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.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
It is telling that this section of Jesus’ discourse on discipleship begins with the matters of reward and hypocrisy. Furthermore, he is applying these to the three great practices expected of every Israelite in the conduct of their religious lives: the giving of alms, prayer, and fasting. Within Judaism, these three disciplines were understood to be practices that helped form the ethical lives the people were called to lead.
What is initially surprising is that Jesus insists on secrecy when engaging in these acts of worship. After all, hasn’t he just said that those who seek to follow him should be light to the world, not hiding their faith under a bushel basket?
Yes, he has. But I think the point he is making here is that, while our religion-based ethics are intended to bring illumination to our world, our practice of the same is really intended, as one author has written, for an audience of one.
The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek for “actor.” Jesus uses the term when describing those who claim to live according to their religion, but in reality are just putting on a show in order to gain the admiration and respect of the people around them. The issue is not piety itself. It is piety practiced before others in a flashy way in order to gain applause. In other words, hypocrisy is, as we well know, pretending to stand for one thing seeking accolades, while in fact behaving in the opposite fashion. There is nothing ethical about such behavior, other than that it is absent. Hypocrisy may reap a temporary reward, but that’s about it. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. It is a movie that we have all seen many times before.
Christian discipleship, on the other hand, acknowledges that the only audience that truly matters is God, the same God from whom no secrets are hid and to whom all desires are known. Returning to the example of giving alms, when we make our financial pledge to the church, we’re not doing this to impress the Rector, the treasurer, the Vestry, or our fellow parishioners. At least, I hope not! Instead, we are doing so to honor God in thanksgiving for the gift of life and the love God has revealed to us in so many ways, and especially in Jesus Christ. Yes, these alms are then shared with our neighbors through the ministries and contributions of the congregation. This is how we fulfill the second part of the summary of the law, loving our neighbors as ourselves. But again, it is not about the applause. It is about honoring God. Succinctly put, that really is the core of the Christian moral life.
So let us give generously, perhaps even extravagantly, for God’s love for us is certainly so. Just don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, because this discipline is not about the recognition. Give without drawing attention. God, who sees in secret, will know. And that, according to Jesus, is the only thing that really matters.