Seen or Secret? Jesus’ paradoxical commands about good deeds

There is little doubt that Christian faith must be lived out in a Christian life.  And Christian life means good works in and for the world around us.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives two different sets of instructions on how we should go about doing good works in the eyes of the world.

"It's the last temptation, the last account Last time you might hear the sermon on the mount..." -Bob Dylan, Shooting Star

“It’s the last temptation, the last account
Last time you might hear the sermon on the mount…”
-Bob Dylan, Shooting Star

A)  You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  Matthew 5:14-16

B)  Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.  Matthew 6:1-4

In the past I have been mystified by these two passages.  They are both about doing good in the eyes of others.  In passage A, disciples are to make their good works very visible and in B they are to be secret.  Are they contradicting one another?  Does Jesus contradict himself?  What does the juxtaposition of the two mean?  Some questions…

Could Jesus be meaning that different contexts require different approaches?  This is highly unlikely for two reasons.  One, both appear to be general commands, that is, given for his followers to obey without being tied to a particular event or situation.  Two, they are both in the same sermon and so are given within the same context.

Is one approach (seen or secret) better than the other?  This doesn’t appear to be the case either.  Let’s just always assume that Jesus means what he says.  If he wants something done in the open, he means it.  If he wants something done in the dark, he means it.  Any attempt to find a hierarchy in his commands is not going to work.

Is there a difference between ‘good works’ (A) and ‘charitable deeds’ (B)?  Just because different words/terms are used doesn’t mean they don’t mean the same thing.  I’m sitting in a ‘chair’ right now but I’ve also taken a ‘seat’.  Different words, differing meanings, but still referring to the same thing.  *They don’t you this stuff until second year Greek*

Does the difference have something to do with why we do good?  Now we’re talking!  Look at the motivation in A.  It is for God to receive glory (...and glorify your Father in heaven.)  The motivation in B is to receive a reward from God (…will Himself reward you openly.)  Both of these motivations are good – God receiving glory and us receiving reward.  But when it comes to the visibility of our good deeds, there is distinction.  When we want God to receive glory, how can good works be kept secret?  For him to receive glory, it must be known that they are done in his name and by his people.  When we do good for heavenly reward (dare not think this isn’t proper Christian motivation!!!) if we are seen to be doing it for ourselves, we already have our reward – that others will think us good.  Instead, done in a way that doesn’t seek ourselves to be known ensures our reward comes from God and not men and women.

Does this mean that we must seek to do two kinds of good works?  Maybe there is a time to make things known.  Maybe there is a time to keep things in the dark.  But probably this paradox need to be actively in place at all times – perhaps even in the same works.  Christian faith is always meant to be a public one, that is, lived and proclaimed out in the open.  The world needs to see God’s people doing his stuff.  But we can not seek to receive reward that brings the credit (and glory) to ourselves.

There is never any doubt that Christ wants good works added to his disciples faith.  In both A and B, those who follow Christ’s commands are both serving the world for his sake.  There should never be a divorce from Christian conviction and Christian action.  We are called to live as we believe, and to believe as we live.


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