Why do we do what we do?
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.-Matthew 6:1
Lent is a season for self-examination. As we continue with reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, moving to the sixth chapter of Matthew, we’re faced with this basic question: Why do we do what we do? Sharpening the focus a bit, when it comes to our spiritual lives, our religious observance, what’s the motivation?
To begin to answer those questions, I return to the wisdom from one of my predecessors, who said he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. We would do well to simply admit that fact. As we approach our own religious observance, as we try to figure out what discipleship means, we recognize that we practice our righteousness for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with the desire to have people think we’re really swell. That’s especially true for clergy who practice religion in a quite public way. But I suspect each one of us has some part of us that practices our righteousness in order to get approval or accolades from those around us. So what are we to do? Some follow up questions come to mind:
What should be our motivation in practicing our righteousness?
Maybe it’s worth thinking about that word “righteousness.’ It’s easy to think that it suggests moralism, a commitment to getting things right all the time, which easily falls into that unattractive holier-than-thou frame of mind. But in the context of the New Testament, righteousness means a number of things. It can be thought of as a term of relationship. Righteousness as a matter of being rightly related to God and neighbor. This comes in fulfillment of the teaching of Jesus who said that the commandments we are given have to do with love of God and neighbor. If that has any truth to it, it means our practice should be focused on how we deepen those relationships, and how we set them right when we mess things up.
Maybe that’s a good focus for the season of Lent, to recognize as the confession says that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind. We have not loved neighbor as self. Sure, mixed motives rule the day. (See St. Paul’s confession of his own struggles as described in Romans 7 and printed in the column on the left). Admitting all that, we may still want to take steps towards wholeness of those relationships. Deepening those relationships may well be the motivation to embrace. Which leads to the next question.
How do we get our motives right, or at least move in that direction?
On Ash Wednesday, during the time when ashes are imposed, the liturgy invites us to read Psalm 51. That psalm includes this prayer: “Create in me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me.’ Based on my own record, left to my own devices, I’m not going to be able to get my motives right. I suspect that that kind of purity of heart will not be given to me in this life in fullness.
But if I am to make any steps in that direction, coming to the kind of purity of heart that Jesus said was blessed, it will come as a gift, as a grace. With that gift available to us, we are called to accept it, to see it as an open door which we can walk through, a bridge we can cross.
One of the ways to make that movement is through spiritual practices, recommended in the invitation to the season of Lent in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Practices like prayer and fasting, reading and meditating on God’s word. Practices like giving something up, e.g., those things that block our spiritual growth. Practices like taking something on, e.g., serving those in great need. Which leads to the third question.
What is the great reward Jesus mentions?
I’m not exactly sure, as heaven remains a wondrous mystery. I’m going to guess that it is not that we will receive accolades on steroids. It will not be a heavenly corner office or a divine macmansion. In fact, I suspect it will not be about us. I’m imagining that it will be the arrival at that place of complete healing and wholeness (a.k.a., salvation), where love is expressed without ambivalence. When our focus is on how we look to other people, that heavenly experience may simply be beyond reach.
I think of heaven as that place where we do indeed love God with all our heart and soul and mind, where we actually love neighbor as self. In doing so, I believe we will find our fullest joy, the joy that God created us to enjoy. I can dream, can’t I?
Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.
A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.
That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.
When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.