Gospel According to Matthew 6: 1–6; 16–21; Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems, VII, 1994 (This Day, 154)
What if no one paid attention to us? What if we moved through this world without eyes gazing on us, judging?
The passages in the Sermon on the Mount about public prayers and fasting hold at their core our understanding that people watch and value us based on our behavior. We call it virtues, or manners. But this assumes we know that people watch us. The logic goes, if I pray in private, how will anyone know about my piety? If I give without credit, how will people know I care? If I fast but no one knows, am I really fasting or just losing weight? We know people watch so we and they attach value to our actions, even when we are aware that these values are sometimes harmful.
The emphasis in the sermon is on how we hope people interpret our actions. My activity shows my relationship to God, the thinking goes. And in the United States people make money off these visible actions (e.g., Christian phonebooks; Christian bakers). Praying over a meal at a restaurant draws attention to a life of faith, but isn’t that the same as calling attention to the prayers in the Temple? Posting a favorite scripture versus may be the same as making fasting visible. The problem isn’t piety—our attempt to engage in the life of God—but rather our wish that people will think the behavior makes us good. We then are no different than the hypocrites because they only wanted people to know they valued God and the rules to maintain the relationship with the holy.
Wendell Berry’s emphasis on what occurs in secret in nature is a helpful way to understand Jesus’ point in the sermon. The organic process of nature reveals God’s presence. But we don’t see that presence because we have lost touch with nature’s process. It is in the silence—busy but hidden in secret (think honey bees pollinating vegetation). The wordsmith recognized that even his words can’t capture the expanse and smallness of creation. Only in the silences do we catch a glimpse of the holy.
We have made much of the hypocrites; they are easy to spot after all. We are them. By calling attention to our faith, we make the same mistake as the Pharisees Jesus’ notes in the sermon. By resting in the organic relations we have with one another and nature, we begin to see God’s world—the one envisioned at the start and hoped for in consummation. This lenten season my prayer is to live into that reality.