Lent column: commentary on Matthew chapter 6


Bella Benz

“do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” Matthew 6:3

Eric Fogle, Opinion Editor

Originally, I wanted this column to be a censure of Lent. I planned on calling a 40-day break from a guilty pleasure unreligious and maybe even claiming that religion and modernity could not coincide. As much as I like to imagine myself as being smart enough to logically undermine the practice of Lent, I’d be guilty of the opacity which I intended to associate with the religion and its practitioners.

Instead, in honor of the season coming to an end, I’d like to humble myself and approach biblical verse with respect and offer my commentary on a discrepancy between my perception of the verse and my perception of the world. I will disclaim that I am an opinion writer, very far from a biblical scholar. Though Christianity is the religion to which I am the closest (specifically Catholicism), I am far from pious.

The verses I look at will concern what I take to be the basic elements of Lent: individual sacrifice, repentance and humility for the sake of deepening one’s relationship with and faith in God. I’ll look at chapter 6 of Matthew, drawing on verses 1-6, 16-18, and 19-21. Any one of these subsections deserves many more words than this column devotes to them; I will attempt and fail to do these passages justice, though hopefully there is something to be found in my failure.

The New International Version translates the first verse of chapter six as: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them (my italics throughout). If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Here, two audiences are established as potential witnesses to righteousness: everyone else on earth and God. The chapter proceeds to encourage secret righteousness, implying that God should be one’s target audience. 

Verses 2 and 5 use mirrored language. Verse 2 reads: “so when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Verse 5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” This language of hypocrites practicing righteousness for the sake of being seen and having received their reward in full continues throughout the chapter.

To appeal to others as witnesses of your morality is to turn away from God. To loudly announce or display your religiosity so that others may see is hypocritical, in other words. The chapter doesn’t assert whether the “others” to which “hypocrites” appeal approve or disapprove. Yet, the verse says that the hypocrites have received their reward in full, perhaps suggesting that others view their demonstration of devoutness favorably. If one appeals to others rather than God as judge, being seen publicly and praised accordingly is reward enough. 

In the world, regardless of religious identification, there’s an overwhelming appeal to others to confirm one’s morality. Everyone signals their virtues to a public that, for some reason, has a collective ability to praise and protect or shun and alienate. With approval from a mob or else from smaller, ideologically similar communities (think liberal/conservative, among others), an individual is safe from ostracization, from loneliness, from removal of group membership. 

Two desires compete in the heart of a Christian: a desire for oneness or closeness with God and a desire for external reinforcement that one is living in such a way that might achieve an eventual oneness with God. 

Group membership feels good but pales in comparison to being welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. That’s my reading, at least. External approval and divine approval struggle to coexist. One might live how God intended so that others might witness it: that’s sinful. One might live how God intended for His own sake; others may recognize it and praise the Christian for it, though their praise is not the Christian’s intention or his goal: that’s not sinful. So long as one cherishes the secrecy of the relationship between God and the individual, others can be present but cannot become the audience for one’s religiosity, the judge to which the believer appeals. 

I think the fragment from verse 4, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” demonstrates the impossibility of being completely secret in one’s worship and prayer. Perfect practice would be living the word of God so secretly that even one’s hands are left unaware. While this is impossible, it effectively illustrates the ideal toward which God asks us to strive. Of course, the brain knows what both hands are doing; I take the passage as a reinforcement of the singularity of worship between one Christian and his Lord; I read an emphasis on the direct and preferably undisturbed relationship between a soul and the God that created it.

I did not go to Ash Wednesday mass this year; I can’t remember the last time I did. I do know that part of that mass (in the Catholic tradition, at least) involves a priest marking the foreheads of practitioners with a cross who leave the cross visible after mass. Verse 16 describes hypocrites who “disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Disfigure, in this sense, means to leave ash on one’s face to signal one’s fasting and, by extension, one’s devotion to God. To me, the chapter suggests that it’s better to anoint one’s face and then to wash it to maintain the secrecy of one’s faith. 

I’m not about to say that Ash Wednesday as Catholics practice it goes against the Bible. I actually don’t love the above section of the verse. Just because the ash is visible on one’s forehead is not sufficient to say that one leaves it there so that others may see. Similarly, washing one’s face and proceeding to brag that one went to church and should be praised for it is hypocritical by the same definition. I understand the call to make one’s fasting, prayer, spirituality individual so that others might not disturb the delicate and potentially unstable connection between God and the soul. 

However, secrecy proves difficult under a microscope. If someone sees and recognizes my car in a church parking lot, have I sinned? If I talk about how difficult it is for me to believe in God and someone overhears, does the conversation lose spiritual value? If I wear a cross and it falls out of my shirt and others see, is it a sin? If someone witnesses me leave church, has the secret of my worship been spilled and ruined as a result? Do visible ashes on the forehead jeopardize one’s relationship with God? Probably not. 

Verses 19-21 encourages people to “not store up for [them]selves treasures on earth…but store up for [them]selves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Not only are riches on earth nothing compared to the fruits of heaven, chasing terrestrial glory risks losing the potential for heavenly glory. Our conception of life and time give terrestrial existence the illusion of being forever, of being everything. It takes faith to imagine immortal life as being something completely separate from day-to-day living. 

Verse 21 reads: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where one locates treasure, one’s heart is destined. If one’s treasure is the universal approval of others, one’s heart will beat in that direction and, as it happens, away from God. If one treasures one’s relationship with God, one’s heart will follow that treasure with regard to others but without substituting their acceptance for God’s. 

If one’s treasure is the universal approval of others, one’s heart will beat in that direction and, as it happens, away from God.

To many, performing ideological purity to others is both easier and more important than attempting to be pure before God. To those who don’t believe in God, the secrecy of purity must sound counterintuitive. Others assign the label and dole out the reward of approval, not God. The message (the complexity of seeking praise) still holds water, however, when weighing the approval of others against the approval of oneself. When one performs for the approval of others, he attempts to conceive of himself as others might, but will it impossible to be both subject and judge, to be both seeker and granter of approval. One must accept oneself before he can successfully accept acceptance or nonacceptance from others, but I digress.

The purpose of this article was not to blaspheme or to preach. If I’ve come across either way, I’ve failed doubly. I set out to draw some lines between the Bible, worship, and daily life for the purpose of figuring out what the Bible asks of people and how scripture conflicts with being a human. I intended to point out the dangerous appeal of desiring human exaltation, an enterprise much more temporary and much less rewarding than a life of humbly seeking and worshiping God. Though I’ve taken one chapter of the Bible out of context and attempted to draft universal truths out of it, I’m happy to have been able to fail.