To be seen or not to be seen
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Today is Ash Wednesday and we have a lesson of great importance about not doing things in order to be glorified, which can be a little difficult. St. Augustine said (and I paraphrase): “No one knows how great the desire for human glory is than the person who has declared war against it. For although it is easy not to wish for praise when it is not given to us, it is difficult not to be pleased with it when it is offered.” Is that not true—that we enjoy praise? But Jesus warns about it and let’s discover why.
You might recall the time when Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil. You will find this in Matthew 4:1-11. The devil tempted Jesus with three things: gluttony, vanity, and greed. Each is a vice; to to each vice is a virtue that serves as an antidote. The antidote to gluttony is fasting. The antidote to vanity is prayer. And the antidote to greed is almsgiving.
So, when we are able to resist the temptation of gluttony by fasting, the temptation of vanity by praying, and the temptation of greed by almsgiving, we defeat the enemy and we glorify God. Yet, the devil can still have victory if we deflect the glory to God by glorifying ourselves. And that is what we do when we make a show of our prayer, our fasting and our almsgiving. Do you see?
But then, you might say, it isn’t always possible to give almsgiving in secret. Or to pray in hiding—I mean, we go for Mass where the whole world sees us praying, right? Or even to fast without people noticing that we are fasting. We begin the season of Lent today and everybody knows that we are fasting. The point is not that people don’t see us doing these things; the point is not doing them so that people will see.
Let me leave you with these words from Jesus. It puts this in proper perspective. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and (but!) glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
As long as what we do glorifies the Father, we do good. May you glorify God in all you do. Have a blessed season of Lent.