In Secret

Read Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

When I was in college, a donor gave a large sum of money to the institution which I was attending. With this money, the college would be able to build a partially underground building to house the school of business, a new dining hall with snack bar, a new technology center with mainframe computers, a new bookstore, a new information center, a new auditorium, new classrooms, new student organization offices and a new mail center. In addition to the new building, there would be money available to improve some of the existing facilities. The catch with the donation was that the donor wished to remain anonymous (this catch would be removed about five years later when the donor was revealed to be Harold Walter Siebens). There was much speculation about the source of the donation of such a large gift. The donor was adamant that he wished to do something good without hype and focus upon him. The focus should be on the students, faculty and education was the desire. An act of doing something beneficial not for the glory but because it was right seemed to be the donor’s thought.

Jesus is teaching the crowd in the passage which we read from Matthew. Three of his teachings focus on faith acts done in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are the actions which Jesus focuses upon here. He uses contrasts to communicate what behaviors the Father desires to be associated with what was seen as righteous or acts demonstrating faith. In all three examples the public exhibition of carrying out each action is presented as the undesirable method of completion. The contrast, and preferred method, is these acts are done in private with only the Father being aware of their completion.

Just as Mr. Siebens desired initially to act in secret, Jesus tells us that when we are acting as part of our faith, we should do so anonymously. The reason for this is due to the importance of the focus. If we make a fanfare or a great show or a visual demonstration of our actions, then the focus is on us as an individual. Giving to others, praying to God and practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting are all intended to place the focus on God. Jesus is teaching here that it should not be all about us but should be about the God in whom we believe. This proper focus is what truly makes these actions acts of faith.

No Favortism

Read James 2:1-9

Throughout a person’s life, each of us experience some level of favoritism. Favoritism manifests itself in large and small ways. The first encounter which a person may have is in elementary school at recess time. A friendly game of kickball may be forming and two captains are choosing who will be on each of their teams. Eligible candidates line up while one by one, names are called out alternating from one team to the other. Those viewed as best players are chosen early while lesser players are left standing until the last. Favoritism is part of the winnowing process.

Today we see a warning against favoritism among believers. The writer of the letter of James warns that believers in Christ must never show favoritism in welcoming others into their fellowship. The writer lifts up a commandment from the early law which Jesus states is the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor.” The author says that if favoritism is found among believers, it is a violation of this commandment. Also pointed out here is the often experienced reality that the preferred often bring hardship to the fellowship while the unfavorite bless the fellowship.

Favoritism frequently raises its ugly head in our world. Those who are not considered or treated as favorites feel the sting of rejection. A sense of worthlessness often shrouds the individual. These experiences can impact self value in negative ways. There is, and never has been, any place for favoritism in the fellowship of the Lord. Jesus made this abundantly clear in his ministry. In this epistle, it is made clear once again. Yet from the start of the church until this very day, favoritism continues to be witnessed in every aspect of the church way too often.

Let us take a stand against this type of behavior. We each must work every day to eliminate any favoritism within the fellowships in which we actively participate. The church should be a place of welcome and safety for every and all individuals. Living out the commandment to love your neighbor should have no preferential treatment associated with it. We may all be surprised how we may be blessed by the least favorite.

No Facade

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:1-12 (NIV)

If you have ever had the privilege of being behind the set of a stage play, a television show, or a movie, you know that most times what the audience sees is a facade. The intention is to assist the performers in transporting the audience to a specific setting for the scene. These facades can look very real. Today’s use of digital enhancements in television shows and movies make it seem even more real. Some people create facades in their lives to generate an image of their choosing as perceived by others. Maintaining these facades can require a lot of energy and be very time consuming.

In today’s reading, God expresses displeasure with the facade which they people have created. They have presented an image in which they humble themselves and deny themselves for a brief period of time. This is done in an effort to win God’s favor. Yet their other behaviors during and after the set time are not congruent with the self-sacrificing humility which they are attempting to present. The Lord describes the behaviors which are pleasing, caring for others and fighting for the oppressed. God is not fooled because the people’s true nature is found in their non-religious actions.

Sadly, we can be like the people of Israel to whom God speaks in this passage. We can go through the motions as prescribed by our faith traditions but the rest of our actions do not align. The fake notion that by adhering to a spiritual practice or rite will win us favor in God’s eyes is still prevalent in many faith communities.

God reminds us that our spiritual practices are only beneficial if they point us towards a wholeness in our living. If they remind us of the importance of caring for others and working to improve the lives of others, then they have purpose. By following a spiritual practice we may renew our energy to fight injustice and oppression. The way we treat others can be changed through our spiritual practices. This is what the Lord desires. These practices are for us, not the Lord.

As we approach the season of Lent soon, a time to renew or begin spiritual practices, may we not create a facade to please the Lord or others. Instead, may we allow these to change our lives and our behaviors.