You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5:14-16)
[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
Does Jesus contradict himself in the Sermon on the Mount? It might appear so at first glance, as Jesus tells us to let our light shine for all to see, and then goes on to say that our left hand shouldn’t know what our right hand is doing. Reflection and discernment are needed to understand how Jesus is calling us to conduct ourselves as his disciples in these passages.
The difference in the two passages hinges on the word praise, and where that praise is directed. Jesus tells us that our light should shine before others “that they may see your good deeds and give praise to your heavenly Father.” In the second passage, the “hypocrites” call attention to their good deeds “to win the praise of others.” In other words, to win praise for themselves. Here we can see the stark difference between these two actions. Our proper disposition should be to perform works of mercy out of love for God, and with the purpose (beyond the inherent value of the deeds themselves) of giving glory to God. Without calling selfish attention to ourselves, our brothers and sisters, as they notice the good deeds we do, and as they know our good deeds spring from our love of Christ, will naturally be drawn to Christ and his Church.
The apostles and early Church modeled this form of discipleship: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.” (Acts 4:32-35)
The early Church took care of each other, loved one another, and bore witness to the Risen Lord. How wonderfully strange they must have looked to the world! Yet it is easy to see how many souls would have been attracted to such a community. We can find countless more examples of Christians whose love for Jesus, manifesting itself in deeds of mercy, drew souls to (or back to) the faith. Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Theresa of Calcutta are the most immediate examples, but really all of the saints have drawn people to Christ in this way. And despite the wonderful variety in their life stories, a common denominator is humility. They did not perform great deeds to win the praise of others, and indeed were scorned by many, but directed all the praise that came their way back to Christ, in whom they gave their complete trust. What a contrast to the hypocrites then and now, whose deeds are done out of love of self, and who seek the spotlight for themselves.
Taken together, these passages challenge us to examine our motivation when we are doing good deeds (which we are obliged to do – Jesus didn’t say “if” we give alms, or “if” we pray, or “if” we fast, but “when”). Are we giving to glory to God through our good deeds, or seeking praise and attention for ourselves? It is very easy and very tempting to direct the glory back to ourselves. It’s also reflexive to do so, whereas it takes prayer, focus and grace to always give the glory back to God. Let’s pray for the grace to give God the glory, always.
Image: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).