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Why We Do What We Do
Wednesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 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 you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Opening Prayer: I come before you today, Lord, filled with a deep desire to know you better, to give you glory, to receive the grace I need to be your faithful follower and friend. I believe that you are here with me now, eagerly desiring to draw me closer to you, to heal my wounds, to enlighten my mind, to strengthen my spirit. All my hopes for happiness and meaning are in you, Lord. Without you, I can do nothing. Please open my mind to receive your light and my heart to receive your strength.
- Three Fundamental Actions: Almsgiving, praying, and fasting are three fundamental religious actions. They are in themselves good things to do. Through almsgiving, we help others who are in need. Through prayer, we rebuild bridges between God and the human race. Through fasting, we learn to curb our disordered desires and tendencies. These actions are not unique to Christianity. They are present, in some form or another, in most of the religions that have come and gone throughout human history. Jesus has no problem with the actions themselves. He actually assumes that they will somehow form part of our lives as Christians: “When you give alms… pray… fast,” he says. It’s as if he is saying, “Of course you will give alms, pray, and fast.” But Jesus does challenge us when it comes to the why behind the what. He emphasizes throughout these verses the importance of why we do “righteous deeds.” He wants us to carefully guard against doing these good deeds in order to win the approval and admiration of other people. How well Jesus knows the human heart! We are so easily swayed by what other people will think of us! We are so easily derailed by vanity, by a disordered concern for the approval and admiration of other people. In fact, we are so vulnerable to this fundamental flaw in our human nature that it can undermine even such simple and pure actions as almsgiving, praying, and fasting. How much am I influenced by fears about what other people may think of me? How often are my choices affected not only by what is right and good for me and for others, but by a thirst for recognition and approval? Jesus invites us to reflect honestly on the real motives at work in our lives, because those motives can either help or hinder our search for meaning and interior peace.
- God Is Our Father: We all have a tendency toward vanity. Jesus knows this, and while in this passage he warns us to defend ourselves against the dangers posed by that tendency, he also gives us a good offense to correct the tendency itself: purity of intention. He encourages us to live our lives in the sight of God, concerned about what God will think of our choices rather than what other people will think of them. Three times he exhorts us to do what is right and good simply because it is right and good, not trying to attract the attention of other people. And then three times he repeats, “And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” Two things come out clearly in this phrase. First, that God is our father. He looks at us with the loving gaze of a good, good, father. He is not watching over us like an Olympic judge, waiting for us to mess up. He is not ignoring us, abandoning us to invent our own meaning and happiness. God really cares. He wants us to make good choices because he knows that good choices lead us to grow and flourish as human beings. This may be hard for us to accept, especially if our human father was far from perfect—which is the case for most of us. As the Catechism puts it: “The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard:63 no one is father as God is Father” (CCC #239). How do I relate to God my Father? How is Jesus inviting me to relate to him?
- Our Father Is Close: Second, when Jesus points out that our Father in heaven “sees what is hidden” and “will repay us,” he is pointing out that God not only gazes on us with love and goodness, but that he is close to us. We are never alone. God is always paying attention to us. This too is often hard for us to accept, because God’s presence isn’t like the presence of others. We know it and perceive it through faith. God doesn’t force himself upon us. He reveals these truths about himself, and invites us to believe in them. He also gives us the grace we need to believe, and to exercise that faith. But he leaves it up to us to accept that grace or reject it, to exercise our faith or let it atrophy. St. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century foundress and Doctor of the Church, defined Christian meditation as “being alone with the one who we know loves us.” How easy is it for me to believe that God is always with me, loving me, accompanying me? How often do I pause to exercise my faith in God’s presence and interest in my life? The Catechism expresses this aspect of God, which Jesus reveals to us in today’s Gospel, beautifully: “At every time and in every place, God draws close to me… God never ceases to draw man to himself…” (CCC #1, #27). The more our faith in God’s constant, fatherly, loving presence grows, the more interior freedom we will experience as we continue to give alms, pray, and fast, and the more we will feel the joy that comes from childlike hope in a God who sees what is hidden and rewards us.
Conversing with Christ: Dear Lord, I am sorry for giving too much importance to the opinion of other people. I want to have the strength and courage to do what is right and good in all circumstances without being afraid of others’ opinions. I want to live in deep, faith-filled communion with you. I know you love me. I know you care about me and are always with me. Please open my eyes to see your loving gaze always bent upon me. Please increase my faith so that I can find you quickly when I look for you. Please teach me to hope in you and the everlasting rewards you promise more than in the passing satisfactions that so easily distract here in this world.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will do something that is right and good just because it is right and good, without looking for any payback except the knowledge that I am moving forward on the path of spiritual maturity and giving you the delight that comes from that.
For Further Reflection: Nine-minute video on how to do Christian meditation: The Four C’s of Christian Meditation.
Written by Fr. John Bartunek, LC