We can argue we have never stooped to commerce with drug dealers, but after a few minutes of reviewing even the most minor addictions, which we nervously and secretly attend to — smoking, drinking, pornography, and even things like a mounting rage — some of us on a daily basis struggle with both past and present dirty dealings with the vendors who keep us stocked up with product and even victims.
Or, I am wrong about that.
When Jesus tells us something three times in a row he’s trying to get our attention. Bristle, bristle, bristle. Flash, flash, flash. And then, this, this, this.
Such is the triple play on blatant hypocrisy from three people regarding almsgiving, worship, and penitence. He begins with the bristle part of the stories. He shifts in each case to a flashing sign about the absurdity of the hypocrisy, and then ends each with a poetic and repetitive final “this” statement.
By calling out each of the mistaken displays of false identity as hypocrisy, he makes the same point about the value of secretly received praise rather than public displays of expected adulation. In all three situations, Jesus preaches to his disciples to keep almsgiving secret, prayers secret, and fasting secret, because, “Your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
The urgency for secrecy, Jesus clearly says, is that God will deliver us a personal divine payment that’s worth much more than our public recompense. Because we wear ashes publicly on Ash Wednesday, bow our heads before eating our meals in a restaurant, and put money in the collection plate at church, all for the right reasons, what is this whole thing about secrecy? What is Jesus telling us about the Father?
Hypocrisy exhibits “the contrivance of false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations.” That summary comes from the free encyclopedia of Wikipedia. Hypocrisy is Jesus’ introductory theme to how we can practice true virtue and goodness rather than train a corrupt heart to trump a public and false character trait of virtue and goodness. Love belongs in the harbor of our hearts. We need to practice one on one with the source of love.
Secrecy as a good thing would describe the function of a loyal, mature, and careful heart. Rather than publicly seek the love and praise of others, we become virtuous and good by secretly seeking the love and praise of God. This secret interaction with God works because God is loyal, mature and careful with us. We strive to act with the same loyalty, maturity and carefulness with others, but our need for praise from others drives us to pretend what we are not. We can’t hide our true heart from God, but we will constantly do so with others, especially those we don’t trust.
The heart-kept secrets in our human relationships play out just like they do with God, but not to our shared benefit. Secrets kept between humans are fraught with peril. The trust between both friends and family, and between associates and peers, has frayed edges. Human held secrets place leverage in each of the secret bearer’s hands. Loyalty, maturity, and care sit on a precarious fence for one or the other, too often turning into infidelity and betrayal, adolescence and neglect.
Using a string of modern analogies, I would suggest that God is not analogous to our landlord, our boss, or our drug dealer.
Sorry about the drug dealer thrown in with the other two more respectable relationships. The three analogies I introduce refer to more general arenas — our addiction suppliers, our debtors, and our slaveholders. Drug dealers supply our addiction. Landlords hold our debts, mortgages and leases. Bosses represent our time managers, or more coarse, our slaveholders. Analogies ultimately fall apart, so apologies to the wonderful landlords and bosses you’ve related to.
We are discussing here the damage caused by failed experiences in these three areas. When those failures inevitably happen the fallout translates to a potentially unhealthy relationship with God. God, though, I repeat, is not analogous to our landlord, our boss, or our drug dealer.
We can argue we have never stooped to commerce with drug dealers, but after a few minutes of reviewing even the most minor addictions, which we nervously and secretly attend to — smoking, drinking, pornography, and even things like a mounting rage — some of us on a daily basis struggle with both past and present dirty dealings with the vendors who keep us stocked up with product and even victims. Or, I am wrong about that.
I am not wrong about debtors and slaveholders. Slaveholders in modern parlance refer to anyone who holds a service contract that requires that our personal time belongs to them. Granted, we more likely agreed to such contracts, but the concept of slavery today refers to any agreement which we were born into, were tricked into, or were fraudulently convinced would benefit us. Slavery might even be recruitment into a mission of great importance that didn’t turn out to be so great. I call modern slavery those duties we must fulfill according to servile contracts we wish we never signed but know will likely happen to us over and over again.
Landlords parlay into debt-oriented agreements which we’ve made for loans, mortgages, rents, and other time-based exchanges where we owe another. Everyone has multiple, if not dozens, of such financial arrangements at practically every level of our existence. Even the super wealthy, if not especially them, have made financial arrangements that would scare the pants off of a typical suburban family.
The point of my debt, addiction and service oriented analogies stems from a key point in Jesus’ descriptions of hypocrisy from the righteous donor, the blatant worshiper, and the fawning penitent found in Ash Wednesday’s Matthew reading. Granted, suppliers, debtors and slaveholders don’t correlate directly to almsgiving, worship, and penitence. I have nothing really to add to Christ’s admonitions about hypocrisy in religious life. He is quite thorough in his representations.
My goal isn’t to update Jesus’ timeless portrayals either. I want to address our relationship to secrecy with God as different from our relationship to secrecy with everyone else. Jesus sets up the relationship of secrecy with God as a solution to our corrupt notions of praise from others. A secret pact is behind the hypocrisy. We should seriously ponder the manner of our secret human relationships.
Human relationships are, largely, leveraged agreements. Leveraged relationships are not how God works with us. We are trained to believe through our periodically failed human agreements that God leverages our prayers, alms and penance on a scale, as if he were a landlord, boss, or drug dealer.
For instance, it is not wise to harangue our landlords to their face about property issues, but we might bad mouth him or her behind their back when they are slow to repair or update the property we inhabit. The symbiotic relationship of renter and landlord requires restraint. Student and teacher communications, banker and lender conversations are much the same. These relationships have a public and a private face. Teachers, for instance, conceal our grades out of respect for us. Bankers protect our wealth holdings with secrecy. Landlords help to secure our material goods, and assure they are hidden from thieving eyes. When these parties feel we have broken our agreement in any way, however, they can cut off our lease throwing our furniture to the curb, call our note due and abscond our IRAs, or fail us from a course and end our careers.
God is not like them, however. He barely resembles them. He does not battle over jealousy for our acquired goods or earnings held only at bay by paperwork and reputation. He could never forgo his principles, degrading into evil temptations, boosting his celebrity at the expense of our health and freedom.
God’s contract was signed by his own blood, and any mortgage was long ago burned. He does not operate on the pass/fail system, nor does he grade on a curve.
God also is not our boss. In our human employment contracts, we know that competition should not get their hands on the closely-held secrets of the company which we are privy to. We may smile when the boss or management looks our way, but on occasion we have talked in almost treacherous terms behind their backs. If our boss finds out about our treasonous conversations we can quickly be fired. Like many relationships employment are two-way. As a threat, we might run to our boss’s competitors and do the company harm. A public disintegration of employee/employer dealings quite often leaves no one safe.
God takes a different path in our relationships. He does not hold a gun at our backs or expect fawning, groveling representations. If our heart is not in synch with the Father, he provides opportunity for realignment, not dismissal. And, we know his heart exudes everything we wish for. If we don’t know this, the problem is certainly with us or whom we believe God to be.
Addictions claim no decency in commerce. While we certainly will not easily reveal the identity or transactions with our drug dealer to anyone, we may be forced by authorities to witness against them in court. Addiction transactions, even legal ones, sully our reputations when the word gets out. An angry drug dealer will damage more than our reputations.
God encourages ultimate transparency when we are fully his, and the possibility of our death at the hand of another, due to our allegiance to him, is the highest form of love, which he too has exemplified on the cross. It’s not addiction that God desires, nor is it obsession. He wants oneness, between two beloved ones, exploding into a communion of beloved saints. He conquered death to assure it can be so.
God’s secret relationship to us has a singular purpose of trading in good and virtuous transactions. But unlike others, God can be trusted with our heart. He will meet our need to be liked, to be satisfied, and to be respected. God is wholly loved and eternally satisfied. He likes us as we are and thrilled by our existence. He is due a respect that drops us to our knees in order for him to pick us up and show us off.
As our human dealings fall apart, we’ll just find someone else, or go somewhere new to start over with our public personae. If we see God as our landlord, our boss and our drug dealer, then our divine dealings will erode in the very same manner as dissolved humans. When God is like any week-kneed human, that’s not the God that Jesus talks about. Worse, though, maybe our hearts are too hardened to believe God is good and virtuous, able to be trusted, and the very source of all goodness. Just because God bristles at the hypocrite and flashes constant images of how sinful we can be, we shouldn’t be foolish to miss the message of salvation, the “this” statement.
Jesus’ message today is this. Your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Almsgiving, prayers and fasting highlight the actions of someone who seeks God’s praise. Practicing in secret simply means we believe what he says about his presence as our Father, our Brother, and our Holy Spirit. We are not testing God by secretly allowing him to love us. We should be eager to allow him to repay our dealings with him when he wants to reveal us to the world. This is the actual relationship that God wants.
We can only show God off in public when he has lifted us up in secret and sent us out as his disciples.