Chapter 4: The Call to Secret Service (Matthew 6:1-18)
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to 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 in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who sees in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
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 debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.-Matthew 6:1-18
An oxymoron is a descriptive phrase containing a logical contradiction: a deafening silence, a cold fire, or, my daughter’s favorite, military intelligence. To say that Christ calls us to a private piety is to venture an oxymoron. For what is piety if not a public display? A secret service of God seems a contradiction in terms. To pray only in the privacy of one’s room; to be so secretive in giving to charity that the left hand does not know the right hand is writing a check; to tell no one, not even one’s spouse, that one is fasting — what kind of piety is that?
And yet that seems the clear call that Jesus issued to his disciples and, through them, to us. That which the world calls piety we are to practice in secret. There is to be absolutely no public show of praying, almsgiving, or fasting. Such things are to be treated as private matters — as private as one’s sexual conduct. There is a secret service that we may render to God, which no other need know about. Like CIA operatives in a foreign country, whose cover masks a hidden identity and a hidden task, so are we to conceal our religious practices from the world.
Among the Jews of Jesus’ time, there were religious duties that one could perform above and beyond the keeping of the law; their justification was that they were pleasing to God. These were prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. These, said Jesus, were to be done as private matters; piety-the practice of purely religious duties-was to be a secret service to God.
That piety should be a private matter is a radical not to say revolutionary idea. It goes totally against the cultural grain. For traditional piety is something performed for others to see. In Roman culture, pietas referred to the public veneration of the gods. Without such a display from prominent citizens, what would happen to the traditional values that were associated with the gods? Pietas was the cultural glue, holding all things in place. How could there be law and order without it?
In our own generation we are witness to the same practice: Persons who hold public office are careful in their speeches to make occasional reference to the Deity and to be photographed going to their church or synagogue. Such utterances and practices are clearly nonsectarian. Their purpose is not to enunciate a doctrine or air a belief or bear a testimony; their purpose is to exhibit piety. We do not want our public officials to preach at us, but we do want to be assured that they are godly men and women and that ours is a society that acknowledges the rule of God.
From what Jesus says in Matthew 6:1-18 about his own society, we can assume that public displays of piety were quite common. People made a great show of praying, almsgiving, and fasting. Then, as now, it was taken for granted that one would make a show of performing one’s religious duties. Men would stand in the street and offer prayers. In the synagogues announcements were made of gifts to the poor; very large gifts were signaled by the blast of a trumpet. And those who fasted cultivated a lean and famished look, that others would know the extent of their self-deprivation.
This insistence on winning public recognition for one’s piety Jesus found offensive; he called it hypocrisy. He said that those who made a public show of religious duties received a very limited reward: They received the approval of others. But the reward they hoped for — to be found pleasing to God — would be denied them. Jesus did not condemn the practices of prayer, almsgiving, or fasting. But he disapproved of their practice as a public show. He pointed out that, like snapshots on a camera film accidentally exposed to light, they were ruined by disclosure.
The Father in Secret
Jesus’ call to a secret service of God was based upon his relationship to the Father who sees in secret. Three times he promised that the person whose piety was practiced in private would be rewarded by “your Father who sees in secret.” Like the author of Psalm 139, Jesus knew the One who sees in secret (v. 2):
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
This One who knows our innermost thoughts deserves a secret service.
God is not, strictly speaking, hidden from us; in Christ, God has disclosed the divine heart and intention. And yet there is also a sense in which God both knows and is known in secret. There is a private, reciprocal knowledge of God. It is to this One who knows our secret thoughts that we direct our piety.
In fact, we may infer from what Jesus says that God is secretly pleased with prayer, almsgiving, and fasting when it is done not for any approval of our fellow human beings-or even with their knowledge — but only for the eyes and ears of God. Jesus would have applauded the woman in the legend who went about with a bucket of hot coals in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she intended, she said, “I want to burn up heaven and put out the fires of hell so that persons will love God for God’s goodness alone, with no fear of punishment or hope of reward!”
But is it possible to love God in a private way? Some may object that to approve of a secret service is to cut the vital nerve between love of God and love of neighbor . Is not the genius of both Judaism and Christianity a holy triangle, in which love of God and love of neighbor are separate but never separated activities? Did not Jesus say that we are lights in this world? Are we not to act so that others “may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)? And what of the accusation that not only private but also individual piety — prayer, alms-giving, fasting — is a retreat from the real world? Isn’t advocacy of a secret service an invitation to private religion, an avoidance of our duties to the poor and oppressed?
To those objections one needs to respond gently but firmly that such service is pleasing to the Father in heaven. The Greek word that is translated as “piety” in Matthew 6:1 is the same word that is translated as “righteousness” in 5:20. And behind that Greek word lies the Hebrew word for justice. We owe to God both a public service and a private one; one cannot slip a knife between civic virtues and the life of devotion and say that one is pleasing to God and the other is not. It may be difficult for us modern folk to see any casual connection between prayer and politics, but that is our problem! As the author of Matthew reports in this passage, God knows and sees, and that is all that matters. If one would rightly serve the unseen God, one performs acts of piety in ways that avoid being seen. For that is the only way to avoid the trap of hypocrisy. Religion has a built-in hazard: Believers are tempted to be good for the show of it. (The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.”) The only way to avoid the trap of hypocrisy is to shun all public spectacles of piety. God sees in secret and rewards in secret.
This reading of Matthew 6:1-18 does not find universal agreement. Eduard Schweizer says (p. 142) that “the man who really places his confidence in God renounces all righteousness that can be judged by men, even by the agent himself, he thus escapes the notion of any accomplishment that would earn reward in the eyes of God.”
But to accept that notion one has to discard all that Matthew says in 6:1-18 about rewards. Besides, as Schweizer himself points out, in Romans 2:28-29 Paul also draws a distinction between what is done for show and what is done for God. John Meier seems closer to the intent of the Gospel author when he writes (p. 57), “The stress on the heavenly Father puts the reward idea-which is indeed part of Jesus’ moral exhortation-into the context of a gift a Father gives his son, and not a strict wage an employer is bound to give his employee.”
Our Call to Prayer
Probably the most difficult aspect of this secret service is the call to private prayer. Jesus bid us, when we pray, to go into our room and shut out the rest of the world. We are not to pray to a public God, who is present in the marketplace and meetinghouse. The Father sees in secret; we are to pray to God in secret.
Those, then, who set themselves up as experts in prayer, who hold workshops, make a public display of a private matter. They are like radio talk-show hosts who chatter with callers about their sex lives. Normal human beings, overhearing such stuff on the public airwaves, must feel that they have blundered into someone else’s bedroom unawares.
A person’s prayers are a private matter between that person and God. We ought never be stopped on the street and asked about our prayer life! If you have trouble praying, go to your pastor and ask for help. But the pastor ought to be as discreet in giving advice about prayer as in advising about making love. Your pastor-no less than you-is tempted by the exhibitionism against which Jesus warned.
Besides, as Jesus pointed out, prayer is no big deal. God knows what we need before we ask, even as parents know the wants of their children. We do not need to heap up long and tiresome phrases to get God’s attention or to move God to action. Prayer is simple and straightforward. Jesus gave us a model for prayer that is also a model of brevity. It consists of six terse petitions: that God’s name be hallowed, God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, and that we receive bread, forgiveness, and help in the face of evil. Period. End of teaching about prayer. All we need to know.
To his model, Jesus attached a promise: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you.” It is a reminder that there is no magic in the words Jesus taught us; prayer requires integrity . If we ask for forgiveness, we ourselves are to be forgiving. The rationale for that is spelled out later in the Gospel in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Jesus tells the story of a servant who forfeited his king’s forgiveness of a great debt because he could not forgive a fellow servant a paltry debt. And one supposes likewise that if a woman prays for daily bread, she ought to be ready to share bread with the neighbor who has none. And if a man prays to be delivered from evil, he ought to avoid leading others astray.
The Call to Almsgiving
What might it mean to give alms to the poor in such a way that one’s left hand did not know what one’s right hand was doing? For such is Jesus’ admonition about personal charity; it is to be private, in the most strict sense. “Alms are given for the sake of the poor, not for personal satisfaction” (Hill, p. 133). Jesus gives us a negative description: One is not to insist on public recognition for one’s benevolence. There is a social recognition for benefaction that is the equivalent of having one’s name and donation read aloud in the synagogue, to the accompaniment of trumpets. Published lists of donors, the announcement of pledges to the church building fund campaign, the insistence on a tax write-off for a donation-all these would seem to belong to the kind of public display that Jesus decried.
Should Christians then not report on their IRS forms the amounts they have given to charity? It would seem to violate the spirit of Jesus’ call; it is spiritual double-dipping. One seeks to please a generous God and act in God’s likeness, responding to the needs of others with an open hand. And yet, since one can also get credit with the IRS, why not? Why not indeed?
What is at stake is the enormous temptation to demand credit-in the form of the approval of others-for faithful behavior. We were brought up to please our earthly fathers; they rewarded us when we did well; we learned how wonderful it is to get approval for good behavior. And the temptation lies close at hand to behave in the same way in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; we like the feeling of being approved by others. But how should we need such credit when our debts have already been paid? If God has forgiven our sins, is not gratitude for such grace to displace in our hearts the demand for credit?
A first reading of Matthew 6:1-18 does indeed give the impression that there is a heavenly bookkeeping system, in which good deeds are credited in the heavenly account. Jesus speaks of faithful behavior being rewarded by the Father who sees in secret. But of course God does not keep books! If there is one lesson that scripture teaches, it is that God does not keep books, with pluses and minuses beside each name. God who is our Judge is at once and the same time our Redeemer. All accounts have been marked Paid. That is our only hope. None of us has the slightest chance of getting off for good behavior. So whatever Jesus means by rewards from the heavenly Father, it cannot be any kind of credit in God’s accounting system. Rather it must mean that such actions are pleasing to God, a suitable thanksgiving to God for grace and mercy given us. Since we cannot give God anything tangible, we give alms to the poor
and needy. That God is touched and pleased by such kindness is our one and only reward!
The Call to Fasting
Fasting has nearly ceased to be practiced among us as a religious duty; it has been replaced by other forms of self-denial. One of the most common of those among us is dieting, which is largely cosmetic and therapeutic. What is there to say about it? Perhaps only this: How much happier we should all be if persons who diet would just shut up about it! Let dieting be as private a matter as prayer and almsgiving. The couplet that used to be quoted to those who quit smoking could well be modified and recited for dieters:
Giving up eating too much isn’t enough,
It’s giving up bragging about it that’s tough.
In sum, Jesus calls us to a personal piety that is wholly private. We are to go about prayer and almsgiving and self-denial as though we were enlisted in the divine Secret Service. No one seeing us is to know that we are about such things. In fact, Eduard Schweizer suggests (p. 146), to anoint your head and wash your face when you fast is “to act as if going to a feast.” In other words, to go about it in disguise. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, has a passage in which he describes the faithful Christian: “Good heavens,” says Kierkegaard, “he looks like a tax collector.” To outward appearance, the Christian is no different from the most ordinary and mundane of persons.
It is not easy to let one’s piety be hidden! If one has a lovely voice and sings in a church choir, the temptation is almost irresistible to let one’s voice sound out above the others. “Listen to me. Is not my voice beautiful? Am I not fortunate to have such a musical instrument?” What’s more, it is so satisfying to let one’s golden tones ring out above the ordinary noises made by fellow singers! To know that others are hearing the same lovely voice that rings in one’s own ears; what could be sweeter? But is God glorified by such a display? No, said Jesus, one does not need public validation. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, is there truly a sound? If one transposes that to the life of faithfulness, the answer is a solid yes. The hearing or seeing by others is not what makes our acts faithful. It is the faithfulness of God that is our validation. To serve such a One is our calling.
There will be some who will want to be rid of piety altogether, be it private or public. When Karl Marx spoke scornfully of religion as the opiate of the people, no doubt he had in mind the practices of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting; these, he said, diverted attention from matters of social justice and gave people a good conscience when their conscience ought to be troubled.
But we ought never be ashamed of the push or pull of piety. It should be enough for us that God is pleased with our prayers, our alms, our self-denial. To try to live wholly without reference to the Father who sees in secret is neither desirable nor possible. We must have our dreams, our myths, our prayers, our worship, our angels, our sacred book. A human being who has no referent outside of herself or himself is an animal, no more.
Modern films and fiction are replete with examples of persons who try to live as though there were no unseen God, and such persons have the look and smell of monsters. Our calling is not to live wholly in this world, and for this world, but to live in this world as children of the Father who sees and is known in secret — but not to let that relationship become a matter of exhibitionism and the occasion for public approval. That is a high calling indeed!
The clinching argument for a secret service of God is Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Luke 18:9-14. Jesus tells of two men who go up to the temple for prayer. One man practices the three religious virtues that have been discussed in this chapter. Not only do we see him at prayer, but he says of himself, “‘I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” He is a Pharisee, a member of a religious group that strove for exemplary piety. The other man is a tax collector, whose public image is that of a corrupt official. We feel some sympathy for the Pharisee when he congratulates himself that he is not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, tax collectors. When the tax collector beats his breast and moans, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” we are not surprised. We can only hope that God will, in the divine mercy, soften the man’s punishment.
And yet Jesus said of the tax collector, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Why? For the very reason that the term Pharisee” has become interchangeable with the term” hypocrite.” The effort to lead a life of public piety had made the first man self-congratulatory, self-justifying, judgmental of others.
He had fallen into the trap that we have described at some length in this exposition of Matthew 6:1-18. Perhaps the word “quicksand” would be more accurate than “trap.” For the nature of piety is such that the more one struggles to live an exemplary life, the deeper one sinks into hypocrisy.
Those who are called to follow Jesus will never aspire, in their private lives, to a piety that goes deeper than the daily confession, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” They will be content to have others look and say, “Are these Christians? Good heavens, they look like tax collectors!”