“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) What Jesus is asking of us here is that we ‘turn our minds to’ our acts of righteousness, our good deeds, by which we come to life — and, as Benedicts reminds, ‘We will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:22) These acts of righteousness are deeds done as part of our service to God; that’s what makes them ‘good.’ And we have entered the ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:45); we owe the Lord such acts of righteousness, such service. Our deeds are righteous, then, only if they are what they purport to be: service of God. This is what we are asked to ‘turn our minds to’ in today’s Gospel. For we can easily subvert them into something else
This morning’s Gospel puts before us the three pious practices that were held in high esteem in the Judaism of Jesus’ day: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These were not the only good deeds that people could do to express their piety — just as for us: in the Rule we have a whole Chapter, a whole toolbox, devoted to The Tools for Good Works. (Rule of St Benedict 4:1-78) Using these three examples, Jesus puts before us what is central: that we do our good deeds with our eyes fixed on God alone. When we do them with a sideways glance to see who might be watching, whom we might impress — “this is what the hypocrites do” is Jesus constant refrain. (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) The word here for ‘hypocrite’ comes from the term for an actor, a stage-player who assumes a role, in which all he says and does is done for effect, done to create an impression, and which is essentially false, for it tells us nothing of the truth of the actor/the person himself. (C.f.: Luke 18:10ff) Thus here, the hypocrite-almsgiver is not concerned for the poor; his real and only concern is to establish a reputation for piety. (Matthew 6:2) Such people, like an actor, make sure to mount a stage, some rather public place where they might stand in full view by all who pass by, where all eyes are fixed on them. (Matthew 6:2, 5) And like the actor, they makeup their faces and put on costumes to help create an effect of one who is engaged in serious religious duty. (Matthew 6:16) The Lord says to such people: If your intent is to create an impression, and you do, then you have succeeded in what you set out to do and you are ‘paid in full’; do not expect any further reward. (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16).
Jesus recommends that ‘whenever’ we do our good works — and in the ‘whenever’ is an expectation that we will do good deeds from time to time as a means of giving expression to our piety, ‘as we should’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:35, 22) — that whenever we do them, we do them in secret … far from the eyes of others, where only God can see. (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18) By this Jesus does not mean that there will not be times when it is proper to, say, gather together for public prayer; his concern is that whatever we do, we do it not to maximise the effect on others, that we not court people’s notice so as to win their approbation. This is what undoes them as an act of true piety. (C.f.: Luke 18:13) In our own piety, Jesus means for us, as far as we are able, not to let others know what we are up to: ‘shut the door on your private place,’ ‘do not let your left hand know what you right hand is doing,’ do nothing that might advertise what you’re up to (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18), or as Benedict would put it, ‘do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so.’ (Rule of St Benedict 4:62) The practice of our own piety is a matter solely between ourselves and God alone. So, ‘put oil on your head and wash your face,’ do everything as you normally would, ‘so that no one will know that you are fasting,’ as Jesus puts it. (Matthew 6:17)
‘Be careful not to parade your good deeds before others so as to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:1) Those whose aim is to win the approval of others, have their reward in their admiration; they are ‘paid in full.’ Our Gospel speaks repeatedly of a ‘reward from your Father in heaven’ — and we note that God is repeatedly called our ‘Father’ in this passage. (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18) However, should we do our good deeds just so as to gain the reward, such would be merely to elevate the hypocrite’s behaviour to the spiritual level. If such is our motivation, we may likewise hear that we ‘have had our reward.’ For the emphasis in this Gospel is not on recompense, but on doing of our duty … just because it is ‘good.’ So, what is this ‘reward from our Father in heaven’? Benedict captures it rather well. In our struggles to live the good life Benedict tells us that we ‘will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear. Through this love, all that we once performed with dread, we will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.’ (Rule of St Benedict 7:67-68)
Our reward is in the joy of doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, from doing it just because it is ‘good.’ Or as Benedict has it: ‘we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:49) When we can do this (c.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:70; John 20:22), we shall hear our Father saying to us, too: “You are my much-loved son/daughter; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) And we will not only know our God as ‘Father,’ but we shall also know ourselves as ‘much loved sons/daughters’; how good is that! Such is our reward. This will bring into our prayer a wonderfully marvellous intimacy … when we can begin our prayer by saying truly: “My Father in heaven …” (Matthew 6:9), and turn our good deeds into acts of love. So, ‘let us during these days of Lent try to keep our manner of life most pure and to wash away the negligence of other times,’ ‘let us set off on this way to life, clothed with faith and the performance of good deeds, with the Gospel for our guide’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:20-21), that we may find our way to such ‘great love’ (Luke 7:47), and let us ‘not be daunted by the narrowness of its way’ as we set out. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:48; 5:10-11)