Bonhoeffer :: Hidden Righteousness

We are still in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Each week I have tried to synopsize Bonhoeffer's comments and add a few of my own. This week we are starting chapter 6 of Matthew as Jesus continues to teach his disciples what the new life will look like.

I would like to comment on the 5th chapter for a moment before we begin the 6th. Bonhoeffer contends, and i agree with him, that the notable point of chapter 5 is the extraordinary quality of the life of discipleship. In the 20th verse of the 5th chapter, Jesus says that the righteousness of the Disciples will must exceed that of the scribes. The word exceed there is "perisseuo", and should perhaps have been translated more strongly. Strongs has its definition as "to superabound (in quantity or quality), be in excess, be superfluous; (be more) abundant, be the better, enough and to spare, exceed, excel, increase," ... Jesus intends for the righteousness of his disciples to be far and away above anything that the scribes and Pharisees can imagine.

The rest of chapter 5 is dedicated to spelling out what that greater righteousness will look like. Jesus gives new instructions: you have heard it said ... but I say to you. Disciples will not give in to their anger or their lust. They will have marriages that last. Disciples will value obedience so highly that they would rather cut off a hand than use it to sin. They will live lives characterized by honesty and integrity. Disciples will forswear violence and will love even their enemies, overcoming with good deeds and kind words rather than evil.

Love is at the heart of this "perisseuo" righteousness. Love that has a quality of superabundance, enough and to spare. Undoubtedly others around us will see this love and be amazed by it. In fact, if you think about it, we disciples are a pretty impressive lot, with our exceeding righteousness. It would only be right that other people notice and be impressed by it. After all, by showing off my righteousness I’m really pointing to God, right? Matthew CH5, v16 says "Mat 5:16 Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven."

Jesus looked his disciples in the eye, and the heart, and said to them:

Matt 6
1 "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. 2 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. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

Now isn’t this a terrible blow! What’s the point of being good if you don’t get to show off a little bit? At least that is what my flesh, my old man, wants to know.

Jesus is telling us more about the quality of righteousness that is demanded of us. If he had stopped with the demand to be righteous, we might confuse ourselves into thinking we should be like the scribes and pharisees, only more so. Self awarded, self righteousness (I must be righteous: look at all these rules I am keeping!) is not what Jesus is looking for. And so, his instructions focus on purity and love. But Jesus doesn’t allow us the possibility of love that is self aware, love that is aware of its own superiority in action. Jesus further describes our righteousness by forcing it to come from our hearts. Someone once said that goodness is defined by what you do when no one is watching. Jesus concurs. Love is not something that we can put on, a task that we can fulfill because we are supposed to. Love must be its own reward.

And therein lies a secret. The Father knows our hearts and our motivations. Jesus would have us believe that the best of actions, done so that those who watch will approve, is not pleasing to God. Rather, actions done simply as a response of compassion with no thought, no calculation as to who will be impressed and how we will be rewarded, are paradoxically worth rewarding.

There is an apparent conflict here between chapter 5 (so let your light shine before all men) and chapter 6 (but when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing). How can it be resolved? I think Jesus recognises that ultimately, virtue cannot be hidden. If the disciples truly have this extraordinary love that results in the behavior Jesus describes, people are going to know about it! At the same time Jesus is so concerned about our tendency towards self righteousness that he tells us to consider our actions carefully, to reflect on our motives. "Take heed" he says.

In thinking about Jesus’ concern for our motivations, a few questions occurred to me. The first and most obvious one is "do we obey?" Do we take heed, do we make an effort to interrogate our motives when we do good deeds. Are we consciously seeking to avoid the acclaim of others? Do we seek privacy when doing good deeds or are we eager to casually drop them into conversation and let others know of all the good we do?

A more specific question, perhaps, is whether or not this emphasis on doing our good deeds in private runs counter to some of our traditional practices. Plain folk have consciously attempted to be sure that seperation from the world takes visible manifestation. Dress in particular has been our attempt to visibly demarcate the lines between disciples and the world. I suspect, however, that this is a classic case of confusing ends and means: I believe that it is quite true that Christians will likely look different than the world around them. If we take seriously the scriptures’ call to be modest in dress and to practice simplicity in lifestyle we may very well be identifiably different. Establishing visible difference as an end in itself, as the reason for a particular style of dress, however, strikes me as an action that may already have all the reward it is going to obtain. Jesus tells us that what we do so that others can see is likely less pleasing to God than what we do simply out of a heart of obedience to him.

This morning Jesus is Lord of all: My obedience to him will be evidenced in how I dress and in the good deeds that I do. But these things must be done with an aim of pleasing God rather than with the aim of impressing man. Take heed!