The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 5: Light And Secrecy
From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 5:13-16; 6:1-18.
Heads and tails on a dime look different, but both are part of the same coin. Sometimes the truth, like the coin, shows two different faces. Frequently that is true of Jesus' sayings. His thoughts move with a vigor and penetration that strain the limits of language. His vocabulary is vigorous and exuberant, full of imaginative appeals. Often he meets a situation with a story instead of an explanation. Often instead of a simple statement he gives us a paradox.
Thus it is when Jesus tells his followers how they are related to the social world around them. To understand him we must pull together parts of two chapters in the Sermon on the Mount, because each side of the paradox helps explain the other. Christians are to let their light shine before men. Yet they are to do their good works in secret. If we take to heart either of these directions without the other, we can destroy the message of Jesus. How do the two faces of the coin go together?
We will not understand Jesus if we approach him as a law-maker, prescribing rules for every situation in life. Rather, he uses specific situations to convey to us the spirit of the kingdom of God -- a spirit that enters into everything we do. So let us look at each side of this paradox of Jesus in order to discover what it has to say about our inner attitudes and motives.
Salt and Light
"You are the salt of the earth." Here is a curious figure of speech. Human beings are not much like salt. But the striking metaphor has its purpose. A pinch of salt can flavor a whole meal. Salt is a preservative, often used in past times to save food from decay. So a few faithful disciples can affect society-giving zest to and saving from corruption a much larger group. But what about salt that is not salty? (Of course, there is no such thing; Jesus is simply continuing his figure of speech, which is meant to be bizarre enough to shake us out of our ruts.) It is useless. So is a disciple who has lost his enthusiasm and loyalty.
"You are the light of the world." Here is a more familiar of speech, common in the Jewish tradition. God has called servant to be "a light to the nations" (Isa. 42:6). The rabbis sometimes thought of Israel as the light of the world. To this day candles are lighted on the altars of many a church during worship hours. A later New Testament book describes Christ as the light from God which shines into the darkness of world (John 1:4-5).
Yet it must have sounded fantastic to suggest that this tiny band of weak disciples in an obscure land could he the light of the world. They were not even known in Rome, the headquarters of the world. Nevertheless, Jesus said that his followers, not the Caesars, were the light of the world.
Now, centuries hence, we know well the feebleness of the Caesars and the light-giving power of that little group that followed Jesus. But to them these words of his must have seemed impossible -- as impossible as much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus bade these men-as he bids us-to let this light shine. It is senseless, yes criminal, to conceal a light that can bless the world. Let the beams stream afar!
Then the world will see us, recognize us, appreciate us -- we think. But that is not what Jesus says. He tells us to fear men's glory, not to seek it. (Remember chapter 4.) But we may hope that our light will lead men to glorify, not us, but God.
So it is said that in the heart of Africa a man relieved of pain by the surgical skill of a foreigner looked up to ask, "But why have you come here to help us?" And he got the simple answer from Albert Schweitzer, "The Lord Jesus sent me."
Thus Jesus' words come true. But too seldom. Why is there so little sacred light in this shadowed world? When a few disciples have spread such magnificent illumination, why do millions give so little light?
Between 1940 and 1950 for the first time in history church members came to be a majority of the population. In the century 1850-1950, membership moved from a rather small minority to a substantial majority. But what difference has it made? We can hardly claim any startling change in our society. Has the salt lost its Savor? Is it fit only to be "thrown out"?
When the French Communists once wanted to strengthen the party, instead of campaigning for more members they pared the rolls. They knew that a few zealously loyal people, :working out from their little cells, could shake a nation. Maybe they had learned that from Christians, who once understood well but now usually forget it.
Serving in Secrecy
Now we turn the coin over and find Jesus telling us, not to let our good works be seen, but to do good in secret. The contradiction seems great; but it is resolved when we get at the basic concern of Jesus -- our motives.
For, says Jesus, the purpose of our good works is to glorify God, to serve him, to express our love for God and our fellow-men. If this is honestly our purpose, we are not worried about getting credit for what we do. But too often our purpose is not genuine. Then we demand recognition. So our willingness to do our good works in secret becomes a real test of our sincerity.
Look at an example from a growing congregation which needed a new building. (The same thing may have happened often, but the recorded facts come from a single specific case.) The pastor and officers of the church, in planning the financial campaign, decided that contributions would be kept secret. The purpose was to make giving a genuine act of Christian devotion. As the campaign got under way, returns were disappointing. Some families were clearly doing their share; others, sometimes the wealthiest, were dragging their feet. So the officers reconsidered and decided to publicize contributions. Many contributors revised their pledges and the campaign succeeded. Some of the church members, who understood the Sermon on the Mount, were grateful for the new building, but disturbed by what they had learned about the motives for giving.
The same psychology works in still subtler ways. Charles Lamb wrote: "The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth and have it found out by accident."
That statement shows up some of the devious traits of personality. We enjoy getting credit for doing good. But then, knowing Jesus' teaching, we obey him and do good secretly. Since we still like praise for our good deeds, we praise ourselves -- both for doing good and for doing it secretly.
Then, if someone accidentally discovers our good deed, we can be triply proud. We have done the good, we have done it secretly, and we received the public credit! Sometimes we even pretend to be disappointed that the discovery has been made, when inwardly we are greatly pleased that our good deeds are known. Or -- doesn't this really happen? -- even while we do the good deed secretly, we hope (without quite admitting it to ourselves) that someone will discover it. Maybe we even "accidentally" leave a clue.
Appropriately enough, the Scriptures use the ugly word hypocrite here. This Greek word originally meant, in a quite harmless sense, an actor on the stage. The New Testament adapted the word to refer to the kind of acting we do in daily life -- pretending to be generous when really we are merely looking for recognition, or pretending to be humble when really we are vain.
Jesus mentions three areas of action where we need to avoid this play-acting: good deeds, prayer, and fasting. In the case of good deeds, Jesus uses his typically vivid, exuberant language. The humorous words convey a serious meaning. Literally, we cannot prevent the left hand from knowing what the right hand does. Literally, the Palestinians did not blow trumpets to call attention to their almsgiving. But we easily get the meaning. (We still say, "If you don't blow your own trumpet, no one will blow it for you.")
Prayer is an especially significant problem. Here, of all places, sincerity should be complete. But many prayers are simply "empty phrases." (The Lord's Prayer, which Jesus gives at this point, will be the subject of chapter 8.)
Fasting represents the sacrifices we make because of our faith. We love to let others know that we are making a sacrifice -- that we are giving up something to do a job for the church. But Jesus says: "No. Make your sacrifice joyfully and unobtrusively. God will reward you."
Summing It Up
Our everyday language recognizes at least in part what Jesus is getting at. "Don't be afraid to take a stand." "Don't blow your own horn." Here are two sayings that point in different directions. One suggests bold, public activity; the other suggests quiet modesty.
Yet we see immediately that the two do not necessarily disagree. Each has its place. The same person might consistently use both sayings. For both are getting at the motives that prompt our acts. When fear of popular disapproval or lethargy leads us to drift with the crowd, we need to think of the first. When pride tempts us to make some display, we need the second.
In a more profound way Jesus is telling us to live our lives before God. Sometimes this will mean that we let our light shine before men -- doing good, confessing our faith -- even though men may seek to embarrass us with their sneers. Sometimes it will mean that we serve God in secret, even though publicity might please us. Always it will mean the kind of sincerity that removes self-consciousness from our religious acts.
Of course, this is the most difficult of all tests because it concerns inmost motivations. Effort and will power can accomplish a lot, but they cannot in themselves change our motives or bring us to be less concerned with ourselves. Self-consciousness is a mountain that no quantity of determination can move. But it is one of those mountains which faith, and faith alone, can cast into the sea.