HIDING THE LIGHT
TEXT: Matthew 5:14-16; Matthew 6:1-6
One of my favorite movie scenes is from a movie that the church didn't care for too much when it was released...Monty Python's Life of Brian. If you remember the premise, the time is the birth and ministry of Christ, and one particular group of people go seeking the Messiah only to get mixed up and think that Messiah is some guy named Brian. As they follow poor Brian around and try to worship him, they run into scenes from the life of the real Messiah now and again. The scene I particularly like is the scene where Jesus is preaching what is known as The Sermon on the Mount, which encompasses both of the readings we had this morning. There are thousands of people listening. Jesus is a good distance away, teaching on the mountainside, and the guys in the movie are way in the back, hearing only bits and pieces. At last one turns to the other and says, "Blessed are the cheesemakers?" It's a great moment, because it reminds us that Jesus was a real person talking to a real crowd under real circumstances. Who knows if everybody there heard everything or heard everything right?
But you didn't have to be standing in the back to be confused by part of this sermon. In chapter 5, Jesus says to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Chapter 6 says almost exactly the opposite. "Don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing" "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." So which is it, Jesus? Do you let people see what you're up to or not? Do we let our good works shine like the gleaming towers of a city on a hill, or do we go into our closet and shut the door? If you're confused, you're not alone.
If you read these verses carefully, you will see that Jesus is talking about more than an outward action. The real good that comes from letting the light shine is, he says, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." The reason to be open about the good things you do is because it will lead to the praise of God.
The picture is different in the next chapter. We should "beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them." When our good works point beyond us to the glory of God, they are a brilliant, shining light. When they are a political act to call attention to ourselves, then don't expect any brownie points from God.
Our lighthouse metaphor becomes a great example of what Jesus is talking about. It's tough to hide a lighthouse, and if you do it defeats the purpose. But it is also not about the lighthouse. It is about the light. The lighthouse has to be prominent because if you hide it, nobody benefits from the light. But you can't go building a lighthouse in the middle of town so everybody can ooh and aah about how pretty it is, because then you've lost the whole purpose.
We have talked about this in different ways before, but the key point is that motivation matters when it comes to the things of God. What we do matters less than why we do it, and there on the mountainside with Jesus are all sorts of people...the good, the bad, and the ugly, and all those different sorts of people may be why Jesus talks about this in such different ways. I can almost see him turning from group to group as he speaks...first to a group of rather timid souls...people who are really trying to please God, but maybe they have been shut down by some holier-than-thou folks who told them they weren't doing it right. "Don't worry about it," Jesus says. "Let your light shine."
But they aren't the only ones there. There are also the Pharisees with the long fringes on their shawls. The fringe length was a status symbol. They are used to having everyone make way for them, and know they deserve the important places at events because they keep God's law. By Matthew 6, Jesus may have turned to face them. "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." There were all types there on the mountain that day and Jesus had a word for each of them. Sometimes the word that one group needed to hear would simply encourage the bad behavior of another group...real life is like that sometimes. Because Jesus is addressing groups with different issues, his words sound contradictory. But I think underneath the message is the same.
What both passages are trying to say, I think, is that when we put God first and our actions spring from praise for who God is, then our actions are acceptable to God, even if from a human standpoint the act was insignificant or unappreciated. When we act in order to draw attention to ourselves or to gain renown or credit for ourselves, then it doesn't matter if our actions spring straight from the pages of the Bible. It gets us nothing beyond the notice we have asked for from human beings.
I have no idea who said this, but I like the quote: "When you're 20, you worry what other people think about you. When you're 40, you don't care what other people think about you. When you're 60, you realize that other people were never thinking about you at all."
In one sense, that progression is like faith development. At the beginning of faith, we worry whether we're doing it right. Is my prayer acceptable? Does God want me to take this job? What will God think of me if I don't believe something that's in the Bible? As our faith deepens, we realize that God accepts us as we are. God becomes more real and personal and we begin to be assured of God's love whether we get it right or not. God is there for us. As we grow still further, however, we realize that, in fact, we still have missed the mark. It is not that God is there for us, but that we are there for God. The Psalmist says that "the heavens declare the glory of God," and as part of God's Creation we are here for the same purpose. This whole earth/life thing is not ultimately about us. It is about God.
We are an expression of the wondrous glory of God...we are created in the image of God...and our job is to reflect that image out to the world. Harmful and unloving acts don't bring glory to God, but neither do good acts that are merely designed to enhance ourselves. When actors in a movie or a play try to draw attention to themselves, the production is harmed. The best music happens when the musicians are lost in the music...when you don't notice who is playing or singing because the music has taken you somewhere beyond performance.
I guess if I were pushed to reconcile these two passages, I would have to say it was like that...like art...the musician who simply wants to become the music...the writer who writes because the story has to be told...the painter who puts oil to canvas because the vision needs to be expressed...the dancer who moves because the feeling can't be contained within the body. If someone happens to be watching, it doesn't matter because it's not about the artist or even the creation. It is about the connection to something so essential to our nature that to fail in its expression is to wither and die.
A city on a hill cannot be hid. A writer must write, whether anyone reads or not. A musician must play or sing, whether or not there is anyone to listen. A person who has invited the light of God to set fire to their hearts will shine even through closed closet doors. It's not about what we do, it's about who we are. And who are we? We are each a unique facet of the perfect diamond of God. None of us has the whole, but all of us bear the image and are created to testify to a unique part of God's glorious nature. It is not about the particular facet; it's about the diamond. It's not about the lighthouse; it's about the light. It is not about us. It is about God.
When it comes right down to it, I don't think these passages are about the technical question of whether we should let anybody see our good deeds. I tend to think that if we are asking that question we have already begun down a slippery slope. I think the point is that we should not be so detached from our good works that we are stopping to think about when and how to do them. As we talked about a few weeks ago, our works should be a natural outflow from our faith...like light naturally flows from a lighted candle. The deeper our faith, the more natural our works become.
Think about it. If God nudges me to do an act of kindness in a public place, shall I shake my Bible back at God and say, "Oh, no, God. You said I should do my good works in secret." Or if I am moved to act with someone privately, do I need to run out and tell the world because I'm not to hide my light? I have the feeling that I shouldn't even be asking those questions, because they turn my focus away from my relationship to God and toward what others think of me.
Now that I've said that, in true Biblical fashion, I will contradict myself. While our goal is to have our good works come almost unconsciously, we are at many places along that road. To be lost in the music, a musician first has to achieve a degree of proficiency in the craft, and it is the same for our faith journey. As we are learning about God and about ourselves, we often need to stop and get analytical. Okay, why AM I doing this? Why do I hide the fact that I go to church? Why was I upset when I didn't get public recognition for doing such and so? If I hide my good works, how will my children know what Christian life looks like? Does the person on the receiving end of my public generosity want to be public also?
Wrestling with those questions and many more are the stepping stones of our faith. They are the way we learn to play our faith music. We learn that this note sounds absolutely beautiful with that note, but that there are perhaps very few times when you want to play these other two notes together. For awhile we have to keep stopping and thinking about which were the notes that sounded good and which were the ones that made our teacher make a face. But, over time and with practice, we hit fewer wrong notes. We learn when even the dissonant combinations can be just right, and that learning goes so deeply into our subconscious that it becomes part of us. We express it without even thinking anymore. Our lights shine.
So should we display our good works or should we hide them? Yes. Both. It depends on what you're doing and it depends even more on why you're doing it. You're going to have to struggle with that for awhile, and you won't always get it right. But the more you pray, the more you read the Bible, the more you join with others who are seeking God as you are, the less the question will trouble you.
The more you come to feel the Spirit of God move in your heart, the more you will simply act on its loving impulses and the less you will care about whether people are watching or what they are thinking. Early in your faith walk you will have to make conscious decisions about whether to remove the bushel from over your light or not; but as you walk onward, the light inside will simply burn the basket off and turn the closet door to ashes. Your light will shine.
(c) 2003, Anne Robertson
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