By Amy Peeler
Maybe you are a musician or know someone who is, and you know all musicians share a love of music: to hear it, to sing it, to participate in it. Many share not just a love of music, but also a love of performing. The desire to perform is, of course, a good thing. You want to share the beauty of God’s creativity in music to cause others to contemplate his mystery or silence or to reflect on his goodness and grace. But if you are anything like me, in addition to all the altruistic motivations for music, you truly enjoy performing, being in front of people.
Let me tell you a bit about myself that many people don’t know. When I was young my dad, who had been a theater major in college, introduced me to musical theater. We were in Annie together at a small local community theater. And it was there, at the age of 8, that I caught the bug. I loved it. I wanted more, so I enrolled in piano, voice, dance, acting. My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to do all that, and I had some successes. I did a few national commercials, I made it to the major theater in Oklahoma City, which of course, is just OKC, but there I was in Sound of Music and Annie, Get Your Gun.
After several years in all of this, I eventually realized I wasn’t the crème de la crème, and I turned my energies to academics and church – hence, my current life – but I never lost the desire to perform. Even today, I love speaking in class or at church. Maybe for you, like me there is an exhilaration about public performance. You like to be seen by others.
So today’s passage often strikes for me a dissonant chord. I can see the point that everything should be done in secret, not so publicly. That desire to be noticed may not be such a great thing, or at least initially I think this is what this passage must teach. What exactly does this well-known passage really say, especially to someone who loves to perform?
It takes place of course in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just upped the ante on relationships, calling his listeners to love both friends and enemies. He concludes with that famous statement: “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:45). One thousand messages reside in those words, but today I want to focus on perfection in these deeds of righteousness of which Jesus speaks in chapter 6.
The headline of this section is this: “Watch out, pay attention, be careful not to do your righteousness before people for the purpose of being seen by them. If you do you won’t get a reward from your Father in heaven.”
It sounds very much like a zero-sum game. If you aim for the accolades of people, you miss the rewards of God. Then Jesus gives three specific examples, acts of mercy, prayer, and fasting.
If you do something kind for someone, don’t brag about it at church and on social media (or the synagogues and streets, as Matthew would have it). Be so secretive that one half of your body doesn’t know what the other is doing. God sees all things, even to the division of bone and marrow (Heb 4:12), so he will reward accordingly.
When you pray, don’t wax eloquently and publicly so that everyone will marvel at your ability as a pray-er. Instead, go into your room – and the small detail here is fascinating – shut the door. When you are there, pray simply, acknowledging the greatness and goodness of God and your basic needs.
When you fast – which actually I highly recommend as a spiritual practice if you haven’t done it before – don’t mope around and go without makeup to look more gaunt. But when you do fast, freshen up put on some special product for your hair, and only God will know how the pains in your belly are leading you to constant dependent prayer.
I don’t think it’s happenstance that the section following this one has to do with treasures on earth. The accolades of others can certainly become a treasure one wants to amass.
So these instructions all make good sense. Well enough. It doesn’t take much theological acumen to know that someone who brags about giving or praying or fasting is annoying. I think all but the most socially tone deaf understand this point.
So is this passage just a series of truisms, statements of the obvious, or is there more we can learn, especially, may I say it again, more for those of us who love to perform?
Let’s go back to the beginning: what exactly does Jesus mean by righteousness in verse 1? “Watch out lest you do your righteousness before people.” Righteousness is of course, a million-dollar word in Biblical and theological studies! Scores of books are written to try to correctly define it.
Interestingly Matthew includes it only seven times (that seems like a good Jewish number) and those occurrences are heavily concentrated in the first part of the gospel.
Jesus, he says, is baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”
He mentions it in two Beatitudes:
Matt. 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Matt. 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Then, of course, there is the famous: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
Then comes this occurrence which we are reading, followed by Matthew 6:33, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
And bookending the story of Jesus’ baptism is a statement in chapter 21 that “John the Baptist came to you in the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32).
So it seems that righteousness in Matthew’s thesaurus includes doing the right things, being lined up with the law, which expresses the desire of God. Does not art fit that bill? Being creative, demonstrating beauty, praising, and lifting the hearts of others to do the same? Music, singing or performing is a doing of righteousness, it seems to me.
So how can you pay attention so that you don’t fall into this trap about which Jesus is speaking? Notice that his instruction is twofold. He warns against not just doing righteousness before others but also the motivation for such performance. Watch out, he says, lest you do it for the purpose of being seen by other people. Put another way, all performers need to ask themselves: Which audience are you aiming at? God or humans?
And that leads then to the second question: what is this reward of which Jesus often speaks? In the context of this passage, the reward given to those who do things for the recognition of other people receive those people’s praise, so it makes sense that the reward given by God also is his praise. I can’t help but think of the passage from later in Matthew where the master in the parable says to his steward, “Well done my good and faithful servant” (25:21). If we do our righteousness for him, God, the God of the universe, will notice what we do and the one who is worthy of all praise will give us laud.
I am very much a words of affirmation person, and this has become quite a powerful insight. If I perform for his audience, God will say, “Good job.” What a reward!
So having thought about these key issues of righteousness and reward, let me offer what I have learned from this passage, and what I hope and pray might be helpful for you: I think this passage says two rather obvious things:
- Cultivate private spiritual practices: That we should be “doing righteousness.” That is the assumption of the passage. Prayer, giving, fasting should be a part of our lives. You cannot sing his glory if you aren’t experiencing it in that little closet or in your tummy or in the secret giving of which even half your body is unaware. At least, if you aren’t, your performance won’t be as full as rich as meaningful, and, of course, God will know that.
- As you do righteousness, do it for God alone. In addition to these acts of righteousness, It is also true that you will be “doing righteousness” as you perform. In this public demonstration of righteousness, do that for God alone. If you do, you will want to do your best – I mean, you are performing for God – but that is a way it seems that will keep both technique and heart in the right proportions.
God will notice and reward you, give you his praise. And others probably will do the same.
I had stated earlier that this passage seems like a zero-sum game: perform for others, and you get no reward from God. But I don’t think the opposite is true, if you perform for the audience of one, God himself, you very well might also receive the praise of humans. Knowing how to respond to that human praise is its own difficult calculus.
When you know you are praised by God, when you feel his pleasure as Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame says, you can accept those human expressions of gratitude with genuine thankfulness, being neither prideful nor falsely humble. Knowing how to take a complement is really hard. This is a way through, I think: You might respond “Thank you for recognizing the gift God has given to me” while you are thinking, “He is pleased so your pleasure is not needed, but simply appreciated.”
Because God knows what happens in secret – how we spend our time, our true motivations – even better than we know them ourselves, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us, right in the middle of this section about doing righteousness, how to direct our vision to God, how to pray for our needs so that he can give us the protection and provision we must have to survive and to thrive so that we can do righteousness before him alone. So, I invite you, as I close, to pray the prayer that he taught us asking for his glory to be revealed this year in the righteousness of singing his praise.
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever, Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois and associate rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Geneva, Illinois.