Friday, January 13, 2023

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Works in Secret or Witness? (5)

The case for witnessing to God's goodness and love with works of piety and kindness is strong throughout Scripture: ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16

However, in this section of Matthew 5-7, also referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus criticizes those who display their prayer, fasting, and giving, so that they can be seen by others. They are "hypocrites" who already have their reward and it's not from God. I learn that any work of piety or service can serve my ego, not others, not God. Like getting an award for perfect Sunday School attendance, does the recognition defeat the purpose?

Still, the theme of witnessing to God's love through our works of service and justice is a very strong one throughout Scripture. Not unlike Abraham who was called to bless all the nations of the earth, prophets like second Isaiah reiterate that Israel's call is about witnessing to God's faithfulness to the nations.** The covenant comes with the responsibility to bear witness to a light that leads to God. "I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations..." Isaiah 49:6***

Who really knows anyone else's motives? It's hard enough to name my own intentions. The intention is of first importance. So when I display an empty plate to push a fasting program on social media, or a service project to show the world what I have done, or when I stand before the congregation to share how much more I'm pledging this year, or when I'm the designated prayer-giver for civic clubs and football games, etc., the reward goes to my professional and institutional public image. 

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner 
Eating his Christmas pie
He stuck in his plum, pulled out a plum
And said, what a proud boy am I!

One church began a community center, providing multiple services for the underserved residents in the area. The programs reached preschoolers and parents, to adults learning job skills. The campus was a strategic match for the many programs it housed each weekday. The number of people and families participating each week was amazing. Its relationship to the sponsoring congregation was well-known by the people that worked there, but also the neighboring households. 

One of the most impressive aspects of this whole endeavor was the fact the fact that the congregation's name was not anywhere on the exterior of the building. This was intentional.***

What is my default? Am I even aware of it? When it's to prove how spiritual, wealthy, or creative I am, Jesus' words on anonymous giving fade away. When all the excitement and adulation evaporate (which it does) my resources are exhausted. In the words of Jesus, I have already received my reward, the limited applause of others. The cycle leads to what John Claypool called, in his experience, "bone-weariness." ****

Churches require that I do all I can to enhance public image, true. But running off the excitement of the next big thing- the spectacular and impressive- cannot teach or nurture a spirituality of patience, endurance, and love.    

*See Matthew 6:5-6
**The nations can also be translated gentiles.
***See also Ezekiel 36:22-23
****This provides an example of "servant evangelism," where the focus is on valuable, useful services offered at low or no charge. Insofar as training has long term impact on economic futures, these can also be considered doing justice.These acts of kindness are given freely, in the name of Christ or the church. Community-wide service projects involving many congregations also fit this category. 
*****See Claypool, Opening Blind Eyes. This book was written while Claypool was yet a Southern Baptist. A brief but powerfully honest spiritual memoir, it has made an indelible mark on my ministry.

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