9 March AD 2011
Matthew 6.1–6, 16–21
Our Lord applies the general principle of seeking only God's approval to the three great branches of human conduct. Christian, and indeed human conduct generally, looks in three directions. There is a duty to God, there is a duty to one's neighbour, and there is a duty to one's self. And each of these great departments of human conduct has one typical form of action, one form of action in which it specially expresses itself. Our duty to God expresses itself particularly in prayer. Our duty to man expresses itself in works of mercy, or alms. Our duty towards ourselves expresses itself in self-subdual, self-mastery that is, fasting. And so our Lord applies the general principle to each of these typical duties. In your prayers, in your alms, in your fastings, in each case you are to look to nothing lower than the praise of God.
As to alms, Our Lord is obviously using a metaphor. We don`t really think that the people of his day, when they went to give alms, literally blew their own trumpet; and in the same way, when he speaks of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, it is clearly a vividly descriptive metaphor, for what our Lord is here forbidding is obviously ostentation in doing good. This teaching makes us ask what our motive is. We are not to be troubled because, when we are trying to do good, we are tempted to think that people are looking at us. That will happen but the point is, what is our motive ? We can find that out. Do we stop doing the good action when people are not looking at us? When we cannot be seen, do we omit it? If not, let us not be worried about being tempted with thoughts of pride. An old saint once said to Satan : 'Not for thy sake did I begin this ; and not for thy sake shall I leave it off!' But on the other hand if you give a twenty-dollar bill when it can be seen and a five when it can’t, then you have grave cause to doubt your motive.
Our Lord applies same principle of seeking only divine praise to prayer and to fasting, and we need not go into detail. Two things only need to be noted. One is that our Lord is not public religious actions. He assumes that we are going to give alms, and pray, and fast. Indeed, that we should pray in secret does not mean that there should be no prayer of the community.
The other is that sentence repeated three times in this Gospel : they have their reward. Every kind of conduct gets its reward on the plane of its motive. If you look out for human praise, on the whole you get it. If you aim vigorously at getting on and winning a good position, the chances are you will succeed. On the whole, then, you get the reward that fits your motive. Our Lord recognizes these lower motives and their proper reward. So then if your motive is earthly, your reward is earthly. You 'have out’ your reward to the full, and must not imagine there is anything over and above which still appeals to God.
With this in mind we turn our thoughts to the season of Lent which we are entering into in this service. This is the season par excellence of devotion, of alms-giving, of prayer, of fasting. No matter what we do, if we keep the rule of Lent and strive seriously to use its disciplines to prepare for Easter, people are going to notice. My friends, do not let that worry you; for if you do you will not keep Lent at all. Only keep your mind fixed on God, for these devotions are only tools to help you seek to do his will. Stay fixed on God, and do your duty as quietly as you can.