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 thought I knew this text–about how to practice the three traditional pieties of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I knew the part about not doing it “to be seen by others,” not like the Pharisees, but it registered only as Don’t be a hypocrite. Yet Jesus’ message goes far deeper than condemning hypocrisy, which is simply pretending to a moral standard but not meeting it. His words describe instead the quintessence of a relationship with God–it’s secret.

When you give alms, Jesus says, do not trumpet your actions so that everyone can see. Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is giving away, “so that your alms may be done in secret. And your father who sees in secret will reward you.” The deed is done secretly, rewarded secretly. It’s how this relationship works.

Same with prayer. Eschew public prayer, Jesus says to all of us who are so “good at” reeling off fabulous petitions. Instead, “go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Hear that? God “is in secret.” If you want to meet God you must go somewhere private and alone, shut the door.)

Then fasting. “Put oil on your head and wash your face,” Jesus says, before you go out, to hide your fasting. It’s almost to deceive by appearance, to make people think you’re not doing something when in fact you are! This is what gobsmacked me. We are to be crypto-believers. Kryptos and kryphaios are the Greek words used in this passage. More than merely “secret,” both words also mean “hidden,” “inward,” “concealed.” Authentic faith, true belief, then, is something inward and hidden. Jesus insists, emphatically, that any outward attempt to engage God is futile; God can only be known in secret. That is enough to make the mind spin, the heart reel. If it’s true, nearly everything we know about the spiritual life is dead wrong; nearly everything about church and liturgy and worship (I say this as a pastor) leans into that futile category, harmless perhaps but missing the point of it all.

This trove of wisdom is too rich for one post. We’ll be coming back again for the next five weeks of Lent. In the meantime…

Don’t tell anyone you read this.

Next Week: “The Secret Reward”


10 Responses to The Big Secret
  1. clark johnson
    February 15, 2018 | 12:03 pm

    David, I’m hooked. Will be waiting in secret. Blessings!

  2. Bex
    February 15, 2018 | 1:30 pm

    Do we wipe off the ashes right away? Only half kidding here…

    • David Anderson
      February 16, 2018 | 11:55 am

      Ha! Yeah, pretty much right away….

  3. Cathy H.
    February 15, 2018 | 1:41 pm

    Can it be that the only way to truly know and become known is found hidden within when we go looking? Where Jesus Christ dwells revealing more about the Father as we look? If our almsgiving, praying, and fasting is done in secret, we look inward to God, not outward to the world and what it thinks of us. But praising God through worship is outward (or is true worship just inward praise overflowing). Looking forward to your next posts.

  4. Peter Bowen
    February 15, 2018 | 6:27 pm

    Even though Christ says to pray in private what he is talking about is don’t be boastful. The congregation is perfectly safe in praying in public (church) as long as the intent is not to impress

  5. Alec Wiggin
    February 16, 2018 | 8:28 am

    So important to know that looking within is where the work and the relationship takes place. At the same time, there seems to be an imperative to proclaim the gospel, eh?

    • David Anderson
      February 16, 2018 | 12:08 pm

      Thanks, Alec, Kathy & Peter–you’ve all addressed the public prayer/worship issue. There are frequent prophetic critiques in the Bible–warning against ritual and liturgy that is disconnected from inner transformation and outward service. (Cf. Amos 5:21.) The point of good worship is to nurture both that inner transformation and that outward service, loving our neighbor. But often it becomes only an outward ritual, something we “do,” a box we check. I guess the only hope we have for authentic and life-altering public worship is having enough people in the community who are, privately, going into that secret place during the week.

  6. Johnna
    February 16, 2018 | 11:45 am

    One of my wiser advisors often said this:

    The secret secretes.

  7. Frank Johnson
    February 17, 2018 | 2:41 pm

    We Episcopalians are pretty good about keeping our relationship with the Lord secret. Perhaps we could spend more time spreading the good News to others as He commanded

    • Lise Walker
      March 8, 2018 | 12:25 pm

      Seems to me that as we develop our relationship with God – the real relationship, which is secret and beyond words – only then do we really have any Good News to share, and it simply will shine from us. It just will. But without this aware relationship, our words and deeds are just sound and motion.

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