We have been engrained to hate legalism. Protestants perhaps fear legalism above all things – despite being quite good at our own forms of legalism. Ritualism, rote actions of self-absorption, and self-promoting religion that creates hierarchies are like scratching a chalkboard with nails. We are always skeptical that there has ever been a good Pharisee or a kind scribe that was not absorbed by this spiritual navel-gazing. Matthew’s caution in Matthew 6 to not do our “acts of piety” for public applause strikes us as perfectly suited to condemn those legalistic religious leaders who crucify Jesus.
There is a temptation, then, to read this passage as saying to avoid ritual or doing our acts of piety before others. We fear that ritual simply becomes dead and hollow repetition. However, Matthew’s Gospel is not prohibiting religious practices but cautioning that it does not become exhibitionism. In fact, the text assumes that these practices will be a viable part of one’s discipleship: “Whenever you give alms… whenever you pray… whenever you fast” (NRSV, vv. 2, 5, 16). Not “if” but “whenever.” This assumes that these things will continue to be a continuous part of their faith. There is a recognition that practices shape our desires. The question remains: What are those practices shaping our desire toward?
To whom is our giving alms directed? To whom is our prayers aimed? To whom is our fasting orienting us? Matthew gets at the heart of worship in this passage. Does our worship aim our hearts toward God or is it seeking recognition from those who are onlookers? In other words, are these acts of worship seeking to glorify God or glorify the self? Of course, most of us imagine that our worship is properly directed, correctly focused upon God. This neglects to recognize our own propensity to desire the accolades of others, to posture ourselves for favorable nods and acknowledgements from the crowd.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. We have entirely bought into this dictum. Our social media pages portray picturesque frames from our lives. We posture and pose to portray ourselves in a favorable light. Coffee mug, cool desktop, a Christian devotional in the corner, and a Bible carefully opened to our life verse. Or, perhaps, a formulaic quote from a notable Christian celebrity with a background of us walking the artistic suburban alleyways. Even as Christian “leaders,” we find ourselves hoping to up our brand and to receive the “likes” of our followers. We have become busy building our base, all-the-while framing it as building the Kingdom. Our acts of piety are captured by a lens for all to see. The comparative nature of such endeavors leads us into a competition that never ceases as we try to climb the social ladder. Be careful whose attention you are courting when doing your acts of piety. It is possible that we have received our reward in full.
It is interesting that all the practices mentioned in Matthew 6 ask us to empty ourselves of something. Alms-giving calls for us to empty our hands for the sake of others. Prayer asks us to empty our lives of our own agendas and to receive God’s call and way as normative. Fasting invites us to empty our stomachs to recognize our total dependence on God for all of life. These counter-intuitive practices aim our hearts at something larger, grander than ourselves. It redirects our hearts to God and toward others – not ourselves. No wonder we want to shift this focus from emptying ourselves to being recognized and filled.
The way of the Cross which Jesus embraces shows us a vision for this way of emptying for the sake of others. These practices which have so deeply shaped Jesus’ life culminate in the Cross. These are not disconnected, though perhaps they differ in scope. Yet, in both the little things and the big things, Jesus demonstrates that these practices are not incidental hoops to jump through to make us better people. Participation in these self-emptying acts is a means of grace for our participation, through faith, in God’s very character and nature. God is the self-risking, self-emptying God in Jesus.
We so easily see our faults in the failures of others. The Pharisees are a great example. We off-put our selfishness on others so that we are not confronted by our need for repentance. Jesus calls us into this way of living, of emptying, following the very path he lays before us as disciples. The point is not to stop doing practices of formation but to align those practices toward God’s way of life: namely, announcing and embodying the Kingdom of heaven present and coming among us. In a society of celebrity, status, and the cult of personality, may our practices shape us to fade into the background so that others might see Christ.