Private Piety and Public Deeds

Last night, a large group of young adults brainstormed how to reach their peers in the Bay. As I perused the ideas on post-its, a good number of them could have been classified under the category of advertisement. My own idea, is a good example. I suggested we tangibly serve our neighbors by adopting a highway, with the added benefit of having the name of our community posted for all to see. As I reflect on this idea, Jesus’ words rattle in my mind, and two of his greatest teachings in Sermon on the Mount seem at odds:

“…let your light shine before others, that they may see you good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Mt. 5:16

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them.” Mt. 6:1

So which is it? Shall we be secretive, or strategically public about our good deeds and piety?

The answer to this question lies in distinguishing ‘good deeds’ from ‘acts of righteousness’. The former is meant to be public, the latter private. Let us call public good deeds a matter of shining light, and public piety a matter of sounding self-righteous trumpets (Mt. 6:2).

Practically speaking, then, which actions ought we do secretly, and which out we put on a stand, so to speak? Jesus is clear that these should be private: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. (Mt. 6:2-18).

For the last several years, my Christian community has taken a Sunday off from services and spent the weekend serving those in need. And we haven’t hesitated to call the media. Shining light or sounding trumpets?

I’m curious what good deeds you would classify as ‘light-shining’.

One more question comes to mind: Jesus refers to ‘letting’ our light shine – not shining our light, to it being seen, not being shown. Is there a principle here similar to that behind Jesus’ teaching to take the lowest seat at a table and be invited to a place of honor rather than claiming an honored seat for yourself. Is there something divine about waiting to be noticed rather than trying to get attention?

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3 Comments on “Private Piety and Public Deeds”

  1. Collin Says:

    On a related topic, the current (Fall 2008) issue of “just between us” magazine has an interview with Sarah Sumner. “Selfish ambition is at the _expense_ of other people; ambition for the Lord is for the _sake_ of other people.” (p.21)

    Are “acts of righteousness” primarily about _me_ whereas “good deeds” are for others — or for the Lord? These categories feel rather “squishy” to me, though…


  2. […] Waywords Talking along the way « Private Piety and Public Deeds […]


  3. These are difficult questions for the church. Part of the complexity seems to arise from the fact that Jesus himself was sometimes very public and sometimes very private in his expressions.

    Over many years I have come to believe in a kind of transactional theory of truth, which I may summarize in a post eventually. The basic idea is that nobody but God has all of it. Thus, whenever we “speak truth,” what in fact we are doing is offering truth to another person who may or may not accept it. If they do, then the truth has been communicated. If not, then we may have inadvertently set a bad precedent for the person who may subsequently be less inclined to receive that truth from another. Or we may be deceived ourselves. In any case, the idea that truth is a thing that can be handed out like bread is flat out wrong.

    So when Jesus tells us to give, pray, and fast in private I tend to think he has in mind the kind of giving, prayer, and fasting in which our only audience is God. There are lots of other kinds of giving and prayer in which we give or pray for the benefit of both God and other people, and these might be done publicly (as Jesus demonstrated also). Fasting I’m not so sure about. But maybe fasting is for God because God doesn’t need food? We sacrifice food to God to demonstrate our willingness to defer our own needs for his. We eat with other people to demonstrate the same thing.


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