Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus commends us to fast, to pray, and to give alms but cautions us not to perform these actions for the sake of acquiring a reputation for holiness.
In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Becket is accosted by a temptation to martyrdom, that is, to win fame and glory by his death. When he realizes the nature of the temptation, he exclaims, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason… A Servant of God has a chance of greater sin and sorrow, than the man who serves a king. For those who serve them” (44-45). Becket’s words go to the heart of today’s gospel. Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, all good deeds, may be done for the wrong reason. Acts meant to serve God may also serve our egos.
Deeds that serve God differ from those that serve our egos because of the motive that underlies them. As John Chrysostom comments upon today’s gospel, “Since even if you should enter into your closet, and having shut the door, should do it for display, the doors will do you no good” (“Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew” 132). We can draw as much attention to ourselves by standing in a corner as by basking in the limelight. In this regard, Jerome warns us, “Don’t seek the fame of avoiding fame. Many who avoid having witnesses of their poverty, their tenderness of heart, their fasting, desire to win approval for the fact that they despise approval” (160-61). The motive out of which our choices arise is all-important because it determines the nature of our actions. If we give alms in order to be known to be generous, then our action is not a deed of generosity but of pride.
It matters little what we pride ourselves in because the lure of pride does not lie in the object of our pursuit but the distinction that it confers upon us. But, ultimately, the distinction that pride bestows betrays those who practice it. For whenever our pretense has evoked the praise of others, we become enslaved to the admiring audience that we have created. The Greek word translated in today’s gospel as hypocrite (hypokrites, meaning actor) is instructive in this regard. Every actor knows that he is only as good as his last performance and stands in dread of a bad review. The more our self-esteem depends upon the opinion of others, the more insecure we become.
Being insecure in self-esteem is the core dynamic of what psychologists call a narcissistic personality disorder. This might strike us as strange because narcissists often project a grandiose persona of self-assurance. But their personas are fragile. Narcissists easily become depressed and full of self-doubt when they receive less than rave reviews for their performances. They are like kites. When the winds of approval and applause are favorable. narcissists fly high; when the winds of acclamation subside, they fall into the doldrums of despondency and despair.
Most of us have a narcissistic wound, for we are insecure in the knowledge that we are loved. So we go through life wearing masks, conning parts, playing roles, giving performances in the hope of winning love or at least curtailing disapproval. In this regard, we are all frightened hypocrites.
There is nothing wrong with receiving praise, but the more we seek it, the more we become addicted to it. Jesus is straightforward in what we must do. We must fast from any behavior that is designed to win the approval of others. Jesus’ counsels to “go to your room and pray in secret … keep your deeds of mercy secret … groom your hair and wash your face when you fast” are but three examples.
Augustine writes that when we fast from our play-acting, we are “cleansing the eye by which God is seen” (“The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount’ 92). We cannot see our Father who dwells in secret if our minds are preoccupied with our performance. Saint Teresa tells us, “All harm comes to us from not keeping our eyes fixed on [God]” (“The Way of Perfection” 97). As we begin Lent, let us direct our gaze inward, to the God who dwells in secret and who loves us.
~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.