Be careful not to practice your righteousness [i.e., justice1] in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6)
These days some people wants us to believe that privacy is all about hiding shameful things. They expect this to make us more susceptible to their agenda for destroying it. But according to Christ’s understanding, quoted above, privacy is a prerequisite of charity, “so that your giving may be in secret.” According to Christ, publicity infects charitable giving. It risks corrupting the heart, so that one acts, not on account of Christ within us, but for the praise of people around us. But if we act on this account we “will have no reward” from God. It seems, rather, that we should hide our good deeds, even from ourselves. But how can the left hand ignore what the right hand does, when both hands act for the same body and mind?
Christ obviously disagreed with pretentious academics who insist that honesty requires simply telling the whole truth, in word and deed. St. Paul confirms this fact when he speaks about himself to the Corinthians saying:
I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not able, for you are still fleshly. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
Both meat and milk nourish the human body. St. Paul’s words assume, however, that being not yet fully developed for life in Christ, the baby Christian’s living habits might react against certain teachings, as it were by choking and vomiting, like a child weaned too quickly from its mother’s milk. This does not mean that the Apostle taught untruths. But he was unwilling frankly to represent the whole truth, lest those still young in Christ take it amiss, and do or suffer evil on his account. The Apostle’s concern about this foreshadows his later caution (in the same epistle) against eating food offered to idols, when doing so may give scandal to those who are yet young in Christ:
Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. However not all men have this knowledge; but some being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. (1 Corinthians 8:4-10)
Thus St. Paul argues the need to withhold information, in word and deed, from those not yet ready to receive and understand it. For to do otherwise risks their life in Christ. He foresees that, instead of their lives being nourished and informed by premature instruction, they will be driven to withdraw from God’s caring eye, into some welter of confusing temptation that storms their will, driving them from Christ’s way of life.
By reminding us that Christ died for those whom we may thus help to destroy, the Apostle Paul appeals to the love of God in us. By that love we are moved to be deeply careful of those for whom He gave, in the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, the very heart and instrument through which He forms and nourishes both humanity, and all creation. It is therefore, our wholehearted love of God that calls on us upon to proffer truth in the right way, and in God’s time, not for our convenience. For without the discipline Christ sets in order, with his example of obedience to God’s truth, the liberty wherewith he sets people free tempts the destruction of the very lives Christ suffered death to preserve from death, for all time and times to come.
It must come as a surprise to some that this includes the secret of our own good works. But that surprise is packaged in reasoning that reminds us that, even when we pass the stage of infancy, all Christians are but children in respect of God. We must therefore be careful to avoid liberties that mimic temptation, putting our salvation at risk. If, as the poet said, “The world is too much with us”, those not fully strengthened by discipleship may end up longing, as that poet did, for some “creed outworn.”
Though we think ourselves impervious, the logic of the world’s praise will seduce us, till we forget the Word and very name of God; till, like people in times before the Son, we mistake the goods we are humanly called to share for good we do. In this mistake, the good we claim to divide with others divides our soul’s affection instead. And what we call charity, and publicly acclaim, abandons the humility of the cross. Lifted up on human praise of our “humanitarianism”, it becomes instead food offered in sham “sacrifice” to the false idols Christ’s ministry unmade. These idols some are now recasting, in the sin-degraded image we have made of ourselves. How can this be fitting for a people whose true boast as always been our commonality, in the high and lowly origin in which was cloaked the incomparable power of our God.
1 The Greek word being translated in this passage evokes God’s supremely Sovereign rulership. This should help us to keep in mind that the action in view involves rightly implementing the true Sovereign’s will. This latter is, in turn, the very definition of justice in government. In this respect, there can be no separation of church and state when it comes to action in respect of God and Christ. Every follower of Christ strives to live as Christ did, by God’s gracious will. Therefore, in respect of God one imperative reigns supreme— “Not my will but thine be done.”
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