Secret Christianity

A group of us were reflecting on the Ash Wednesday readings, especially the gospel reading from Matthew 6. The reading includes three teachings against ostentatious public piety – one involving almsgiving, one involving prayer and one about fasting – the three mainstays of the Lenten season.
Here’s a sampler:

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.

Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

When I cast my mind back into Jesus’s time, I became intrigued by the problem he was solving, and the way he went about solving it. First of all, I don’t see Jesus as making unearthly utterances, utterly disconnected from the world around him. His teachings, even when the gospels don’t supply the context, are possible to connect to situations in his world, and often, in ours. In the case of Matthew 6, Jesus teaches one’s proper relationship with God – as well as what does NOT make for a proper relationship. He is concerned with the way that human beings encounter the divine. What enhances that encounter? What thwarts it? The irony is that being explicitly religious can actually increase our distance from divinity!

Like many problems that stem from the human personality, ego and personal agenda are the primary sources of trouble. Each of the gospel’s examples deals with ego and need to shine up one’s public persona. There’s the man (presumably) who literally trumpets his charity. The one whose prayer is conspicuously public. The one who stumbles around, unwashed and uncombed to show how much his fasting is affecting him. All have chosen public displays, probably not with ill intent, to show how much they have done for God. And, perhaps, what God owes them.

But Jesus objects. He sees something deeply wrong with public displays of piety. So wrong, that they fail to bring about what they hope to accomplish, namely, regard and reward from God.

If public manifestations of devotion miss the point, it is because they are often not about God at all, but about oneself. But an encounter with God cannot be about self-regard. There is no way that we will put one over on God. For God knows us better than we know ourselves. Our public displays replace God’s vision of us with a false, flattering image of ourselves, one that amplifies our goodness out of proportion to its value. Instead of intimacy, depth, vulnerability and humility before God, we present ourselves as worthy and exemplary. Instead of becoming naked before the Lord, radically aware of our shortcomings, we ask the Lord to be as awed by our goodness as we are. Instead of the possibility of getting beyond our sins and faults, we choose to gaze upon the awesomeness of who we think we are.

It seems to be part of the human social DNA to do fool ourselves. Which may be why Jesus spends so much time tearing down a bad way of living and painstakingly building up a new one. He could have said, “Your relationship to the Father must be intimate and open!” and left it at that. But seemingly, this would not have been comprehensible to his followers. Why do I think that? Precisely because Jesus had to give specific examples of a) the behavior that met with his disapproval, and b) behavior that he would approve. First, don’t do what the hypocrites (those with ego-driven agendas) do when they pray and fast. Don’t publicize it with announcements, or even with a hang-dog, sloppy appearance. The purpose of those actions is clearly to bring attention to yourself, not to have an intimate and honest relationship with God. If attention is what you want, Jesus teaches, you will get it. And no more. A relationship with the Father is radically incompatible with ego and personal agendas. Second, Jesus tells us how we MIGHT have a relationship. Give in secret. Pray in the most hidden recesses of your home. Spruce yourself up so others can’t give you credit for holiness.

It’s reading between the lines, for sure, but it seems that this lesson – in which bad behavior is called out repeatedly and good behavior suggested – must have been an extremely difficult one. I can imagine how easy it would be for the disciples to take ostentatious public prayer as normal. They might even have been intimidated and impressed by those assertive enough to bring attention to themselves when they did religious works. For Jesus to call out this behavior -- not as merely tasteless, but as actually counter to the very intention of the religious display – must have been unexpected. That he had to provide three separate examples displays how a) important the lesson was and b) how counter-intuitive it must have been in Jesus’s world.

Lest anyone think this is a Jewish or a first-century problem, you might want to check out the ostentatious religiosity of our politicians, athletes and media stars. Not to mention our religious leaders. For my money, there’s more than piety involved in prayer breakfasts, “defending” Christmas, goal-line prayers, televangelism, sticking manager scenes in public parks and posting the Ten Commandments in City Hall. Not to mention crucifixes, fish decals, tattooed rosaries and WWJD bracelets.

The ideal of Jesus reflected here--that an intimate, interior relationship with God should be the norm--is harder to attain that it seems, even when you know the teaching and try to put it into effect! I played guitar for an Ash Wednesday service last night. Afterwards, I was DYING for someone to tell me how well I played. I was DYING to ask my wife how I did. And I would not have minded parading around town with my ashes on my forehead. Sometimes, the best I can do is to refrain from acting on the desire to bring attention to myself. When I realize that the lack of a selfish agenda is the point of prayer, it seems like I have a long way to go before I can reach the level of the teaching.

Which brings me to Jesus. What kind of human being can even imagine the idea of putting self away when coming into God’s presence? Or that God’s presence is only truly perceptible when putting personal agendas aside? His religious genius is on brilliant display here. In traditional terms, his selflessness is sometimes called, erroneously, I think,  “obedience.” But obedience means to accede to another’s will. It doesn’t require having a will of one’s own. A Roomba can “obey” me when I turn it on to sweep a floor. A pet can "obey" a master. But to apply such models of obedience to human beings is a rejection of their own personhood – a denial that all are made in  the image of God, with their own will, desires and intelligence.  I have never been comfortable with this approach to knowing God, though many religious people talk often about obedience and the need to surrender to God. But to approach God without personal agendas seems less like a surrender of one’s legitimate personhood, than about coming willingly into communion with God. Communion does not mean dissolving oneself in something, but coming into communication and cooperation with it. As the Trinity is not the blending of Father , Son and Spirit into a undistinguishable porridge, so is communion with God, uncluttered by personal agendas, a way to bring the true “me” into sharper focus -- more able to act on the love and felloship that God shows constantly.