There once was a man who claimed to love his wife. The wife was a vegan and principally opposed to Hollywood movie productions. Each year on her birthday, the husband would throw a lavish party and present gifts to his bride. One year he gave her a custom hunting rifle, engraved with her initials. The following year he gave her a subscription to the Steak of the Month Club. The next, he bought her a DVD containing the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie catalog. And the next he took her on an all-expenses-paid trip to a movie set, where she could meet all the actors and director. All the party guests would gush over the generosity of this doting husband, who so clearly loved his wife that he would go to such lengths and expense to make her happy with all these wonderful gifts.
Except the wife was not happy.
Because the husband was not giving these gifts to her. They were not for her. He was buying things for himself. He was buying them for their personal utility and for the approbation he received from others for his (apparent) generosity.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus helps us get to the heart of why we do things. Are we really acting in a genuine way toward God? Or are we acting in a veiled way for ourselves? Are we like the husband who does things outwardly for his wife, but is ultimately giving gifts to himself?
The reading today comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus provides some examples of how we can slip into the habit of performing deeds for our fellow man instead of for God. Now, it is not as if God needs us in some way to give Him gifts so that He will be happy. Instead, He desires our whole heart because we were made for that very purpose; joined together in harmony with Him. It is for our true good in union with His will that we remove secondary and tertiary goods from their lofty perch. To be recognized by our fellow man is not bad per se. But it should not be the reason we do things. And this is for obvious reasons. If the praise of others motivates our actions, we quickly become unmoored from the truth and right conduct. If we are moved from what is truly good to what others think (wrongly) as good, then we allow ourselves to be led astray.
When we give for the sake of notoriety, when we make a show
of prayer so that people will think we are pious, when we fast so that others
will notice how much we “care about God”, we fall into the trap of doing things
for the wrong reasons. It is easy to become ensnared in this trap. To avoid it,
we need to check our why. This sounds like a platitude, something you
would hear at a self-help seminar. However, the biblical truth is much deeper.
We must honestly ask, what has primacy of place in our lives? To what are our
thoughts most often directed? What occupies our headspace, our focus, our
deepest desires? Sometimes, it is not a fun journey to answer these questions,
yet it is quite worthwhile. Jesus lovingly gives us a hand along the way.
When we give of ourselves to God and each other, the movement is from what we desire, which stems from what we judge as good. We give to God because He truly has given us everything. We give to others as it reflects what God has given us. It reflects the love of God. We give to God because we love Him, which is to say we love His presence, His Kingdom, the things He loves, the people He loves. Sure, this sounds like a lofty ideal. Some tantalizing bar hopelessly, and frustratingly, set at such a height we cannot clear it. I don’t think this is the case. It is within our grasp when we reframe things from the perspective God asks us to have. Jesus’ teaching helps clarify, simplify, reduce. We can take away the man-made clutter and get back to basics. We can take away the false expectations we put on ourselves and others. We can run freely in the liberty Christ has given us. We are told by the Lord what His desires are for us. They don’t involve many complications. We tend to overcomplicate it. A little spiritual decluttering is good for us.
I firmly believe Jesus is not telling us to stop giving, praying in public, or fasting. All of these things are right, true, and good. Jesus is giving us some helpful calibration tools as we undertake these acts of devotion and charity.