There are a lot of things Jesus said that rarely get repeated and a handful that get repeated often. Among the often-repeated is this:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1)
It seems pretty cut and dried. Don’t ever let anyone see you do anything good. If you do, no pats on the back from God for you.
Here’s the rest of the passage:
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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:2-4)
Jesus adds nuance to his first statement. And like he often does, he uses wild hyperbole to make his point, offering two absurd polar opposites. The first is of a guy dressed up in his fancy clothes sending out people with trumpets so that he has the attention of everyone in the town square as he bends down and gives some money to a homeless person (and, no, people didn’t actually do that). It’s like someone standing up on his chair at the restaurant and yelling out for all to hear, “I’m going to leave a tip for the waiter right now. Boo-yah!” Or someone live streaming themselves as they jump the battery in someone else’s car, nodding to the camera the whole time with a self-satisfied smirk.
The opposite example Jesus gives is just as absurd. It’s your left hand operating independently from the rest of your body, reaching into your pocket, pulling out your wallet, and handing someone a couple of twenties as you keep walking on, oblivious to what you’re doing.
The two extremes make a single point: When you care for the needs of others, it’s about them, not you. Keep the focus on them.
What Jesus isn’t trying to get us to do is to be so secret no one ever knows what we’re doing. In fact, both Jesus and the rest of the Scriptures advise us to do just the opposite of secrecy. We’re told to do our good deeds in such a way that attention goes to the God we serve. In fact, just a few verses before the ones quoted above, Jesus had this to say:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)
Instead of being secret, Jesus wants us to do our good deeds in ways that cannot be hidden. The point being: What you do in public affects God’s reputation. So, make sure you’re doing good deeds publicly, because that best reflects to others the character of our God.
We have the same sentiment expressed in 1 Peter 2:12 —
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
So, there is missional value to good deeds done in public.
Far too often, what people see of Christians is our less than savory politics and moralisms. This leads to the cliché I heard as a kid and heard again this last week: “Christians are hypocrites.”
That people call us hypocrites is our own fault. We hide our good deeds and trumpet our bad deeds. So, what else are they going to think about us?
When we do our good deeds in public that hypocrisy charge goes away. Our care for the vulnerable and poor becomes its own apologetic for our faith, and one which people find far more convincing that intellectual arguments.
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who had embraced atheism. He kept laying down Richard Dawkins inspired charges against Christians. And to each one, I said, “I’m sure there are Christians who act that way, I just don’t know them. Making those accusations generally about Christians makes them untrue. As specific charges against specific people, they may be true. But they are not true as generalizations.” And when it was my turn to speak, I said, “Do you know who the only organizations who provide food and clothing to the needy in my small town of Lebanon, Oregon, are? Churches. Do you know who homeless people go to for financial help? Churches. Do you know who delivers toys to families who can’t afford them at Christmas? Churches. Do you know who gives away turkeys at Thanksgiving? Churches. Do you know who built a ramp for a newly wheelchair-bound woman? Christians. Do you know who built a fence for a young mom whose husband is in Iraq so her children have a safe place to play? Christians. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I know that in my community, the ones who are committed to doing good deeds are Christians.” Generalizations can be argued against; specifics cannot.
Because our town was small and these deeds weren’t done secretly (or with the sounding of trumpets!), I knew about them. I knew who was doing these good things. And I knew that no one else was doing them. The only people in our community who had organized themselves for the sake of the poor and vulnerable were Christians.
Did that mean those who weren’t Christians had no interest in doing good deeds? Of course they wanted to. But they lacked the organization and the impetus of worshiping Jesus, who intentionally sacrificed everything for us and who calls us to follow him, to imitate him.
And that leads me to the second reason why doing good deeds publicly is so important: It teaches the doing of good deeds to others.
When no one sees us doing good deeds, no one is inspired to do good deeds themselves. But when I see someone do something good, I’m not only inspired to do good myself, but I’ve seen a model for how to do good deeds.
Discipleship is that act of following Jesus, learning from Jesus, copying Jesus, and becoming like Jesus. This doesn’t happen without effort. It also doesn’t happen without intentional modeling and training.
One of the last things Jesus told his disciples to do was to make more disciple, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything he commanded. In other words, the making of new followers of Jesus includes immersing ourselves in the life of the Triune God and teaching people to live like Jesus did. That’s pretty much it.
And teaching people how to live a particular kind of life can only be done by modeling.
If I’m to live differently from almost everyone I see, I have to see someone doing it differently. And that person has to be doing it in such a compelling way that I choose to follow their example instead of the example of the majority. I need a different imagination. Our failures are often failures of imagination.
In 1 Cor. 11:1, Paul writes that our discipleship training is basically a game of follow the leader: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
But the whole thing breaks down when we start to live our faith secretly. When I hide my good deeds, I’m basically stealing them from those who might have seen them and replicated them in their own lives. The chain of following the examples of others who are following the examples of others who are following the example of Christ gets broken.
As a Dad, I see my kids using the same words and phrases I use, telling similar jokes to the ones I tell (much to their chagrin), valuing many of the things I value, reading the same books I read, and so on. For better and for worse, the way I’ve lived my life in front them has made an indelible impression on them. They aren’t mini-Me’s, but they’re similar.
My example has given them an imagination for how to live life that they can copy, modify, or reject. If I saved all of the good parts of my life to be done in secret, I hope they’d reject my example completely, for only the unsavory would be left.
It’s time for us to stop being so shy. It’s time for us to bring our good deeds out of the shadows. It’s time for us to not just do them by ourselves, but to invite others to join us in doing them — others who claim to follow Jesus, so they learn to do these good deeds themselves; others who don’t follow Jesus, so they learn the good and true and beautiful way of following our gracious God.
This last Sunday, the founder of an organization which works to prevent children from being sold into sex slavery spoke about what he and his organization do. In other words, he was public about his good deeds (missionaries do this all the time without being reprimanded for tooting their own horns). But as I left the building, I didn’t think to myself, “Wow! That guy is so awesome. I want people to know about him.” No, I thought, “That’s the kind of thing I want to do with my life. That’s the kind of thing Jesus has been leading me to do. I want to be a part of that great work, whether it’s sending money so others can do the actual work or whether it means getting busy doing it myself in some shape or form.”
As Jesus intended, the man kept the focus not on himself, but on the need people have and on the God who sends us to meet that need. May we all do the same.