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 whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell 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 done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4
I wonder in Jesus' day how many people had a marching band precede them into the temple? How many people had their own theme music as they dropped an offering into the coffers in the temple? I think we all like a little fanfare and recognition. I walk into so many buildings and there is a wall of names in glass or brass or granite that declares who contributed money. I go to a theater and in the pages of the program are names of the patrons of the art. I go to my children's school....yes school...and the "business partners" are listed on the wall. In a world of consumerism and constant commercials; in a world where we are told that you consume therefore you are; and what you buy is part of your identity ("Oh I am totally a Mac, not a PC," we say at parties as though hat distinguishes us in some way from millions of others), I struggle with this passage.
I struggle also because the church is not immune from the above pressures. Every week we receive an offering. Every year we ask for a financial commitment. Every month we review the budget ~ breathing a sigh of relief in good times and wringing our hands in bad times. While I don't hear many trumpets, I do hear folks tutting their own horns. It is difficult. We want people to feel good about the funds they give to the church. We want there to be a sense of joy, but not gloating. That is a moving target. One person's joy in sharing is another person's bragging. The line moves depending on who is talking.
Jesus tells us that we should give in secret, not let our left hand know what our right is doing. That does not sound like very practical advice. How in the world do I write a check or see what bill I am pulling out of my wallet. I think the deeper point is to realize that money is neutral; as humans we assign the value. We assign what is a meaningful gift by the trumpets we blast or the shrug of the shoulders. Maybe we should have a wall of gratitude for all gifts? Or maybe we should take down all the walls? I am glad Jesus did not give us advice, rather he shined a light on a concern so that we would be faithful and prayerful in our approach.
Speaking of prayer, I guess there were some in Jesus' day would enjoyed carrying on a bit in prayer. The gloating did not stop at the offering plate, it continued into the worship service in the words offered from our hearts. All this matters. Both money and our words matter, because both have power in our world. I love the image of going into the inner room. That was often the dressing room, where you would be naked. Many (Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor) have spoken about naked spirituality, the naked now, or praying naked in front of the mirror. That image might come from this very passage.
We are in the season of Lent, a time set aside to pay attention to all that is going on inside us and around us. Lent is about being intentional and thoughtful. We practice this, not so that on Easter Sunday we can pick up where we left off on Shrove Tuesday. We practice this kind of honest, naked, reflection so that we can continue on that path through the coming days.
I pray that something above might have sparked an insight for you about money or prayer. I pray that as you continue on the Lenten journey you will continue to strip back the wallpaper lives we so often post on Facebook or show to our friends. Go into that inner space and room, offer all you are to God. According to Jesus, there is more than a trace of God's grace in doing just that.
Peace and blessings ~