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”