The Secret Reward


Part 2 in a Five-Part Lenten Series

Imagine the Academy Awards… in secret.

Someone from the Academy calls. “Congratulations,” the voice says, “you are the Best Actress.” That’s it. There is no gala, no red carpet, no envelope please, no Oscar statuette. No one ever finds out who wins. Only you.

Isn’t that the whole point of an award–that it’s public? How would you feel about getting an award in private?

In this series we are looking deep into that classic clip from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-21), where Jesus warns us away from public shows of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. It must all be done, he insists, “in secret.” It’s a call to turn radically inward, a recognition that God–who “is in secret”–can be met only there.

It takes a lot of faith to forswear all those outward trappings and appearances, and yet the only “reward” we are promised is a secret one. “And your father who sees in secret will reward you.” The divine reward stands in marked contrast to the one the “hypocrites” get. After every depiction of some piety done in front of others Jesus adds, solemnly, “I tell you, they have received their reward.” Clearly, God’s reward is received away from the crowd, alone.

I had to smile at the asterisk in my Bible–right after that line, “and God who sees in secret will reward you.” The footnote reads, “Some manuscripts add ‘openly.’” Somebody had to add that word. Otherwise it doesn’t add up for us. If nobody sees us get the Almighty Nod of Approval, what good is it?

The secret reward brings us to a critical inner reckoning. It asks us to renounce our need to be seen, get credit, look good, be vindicated–to be OK with who we are in God’s sight. God knows how much time we waste trying to get somebody else to tell us we’re worthy, successful, attractive, important.

What Jesus wants for us is a life free from the craziness that comes from looking out there for affirmation and approval. He knows how beautifully freeing it is not to need anyone else to ratify your life. Jesus could live such a life of freedom, careless of what the “important” and “powerful” people thought, because he was so confident of his inner life with the Father, Abba.

It’s natural to want the public reward and often we are successful in getting it, but if we follow that path for long it always ends in unhappiness. The outer sources of affirmation dry up and there’s nothing left inside. You spend your whole life trying to get everyone to like you, and at the end you don’t even like yourself. Now is the time, Jesus says, to let all that go and claim the only reward that matters, now and for eternity. The secret one.

Next week: Worship in Secret


Part 1 The Big Secret

The Big Secret

First in a Lenten Series How did I miss this? I’ve been reading this Ash Wednesday gospel for decades. Same every year. Matthew 6. Sermon on the Mount. Yet when I heard it this year, I was struck by what seemed the most obvious, pressing, urgent message of Jesus’ address. It’s the word secret. I…

Gutsy Embrace

I’m not a big fan of “inclusion.” I’m very much for widening the circle of love and embrace, but “inclusion” has been sloganized by liberal Protestants until it means something like vague acceptance. The ideal includers are people with a coat hanger smile who just love everybody! And if that’s what it takes to be…

Four Percent

The rationalists used to be able to laugh at us believer-types, when we stood together and confessed our belief in “all things visible and invisible.” That was before astronomers and physicists discovered “dark matter.” When we look up at the moon and the stars we assume we are seeing all there is in the universe….

Storm the Barricades!

I parked my car in New York last night and came back to find a leaflet jammed into my door handle. I looked down the street; every car had been hit. I saw a picture of the pope and figured it was just an overeager Catholic blanketing the neighborhood with tracts. I opened it and…