Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
We live in what some call a “signal culture.” The term describes how humans tend to flaunt things we find impressive. Like a peacock flaunts its feathers to impress other peacocks. One example you may have heard of is virtue signaling. The dictionary defines virtue signaling as “the sharing of one's point of view…often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others…” Virtue signaling is seeking to appear as virtuous as possible. Other forms of signaling might be trying to appear as physically attractive as possible, as athletic as possible, as intelligent as possible, as funny as possible, or as socially connected as possible. This all comes from a natural desire for social acceptance and, once that is achieved, social superiority. It’s an instinct in all of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Whatever signals we find most impressive are the signals we try to demonstrate to the world, like a peacock flaunting its feathers.
Jesus describes this phenomenon in the Gospel reading today. When he calls out those who flaunt their religious feathers. You see, in Jesus’ time the most impressive value signals were religious ones. Those who fasted, or gave a lot to charity, or who prayed a lot were viewed as really impressive people. Now those things don’t really sound all that bad. It’s not prayer, charity, and fasting that Jesus is against—it’s the motivation behind them that matters.
Father Thomas Keating, one of founders of centering prayer, wrote a lot about this phenomenon. This tendency in humans to always seek to boost our ego, increase our self-image, build ourselves up in the eyes of others and in our own eyes. He calls this image we’re building the “false self.” The false self is the person we portray to the world. But even more than that, it’s the person we portray to ourselves. The “me” we think we are. The person we tell ourselves we are. This is natural, it’s human nature, but it can cloud our vision for seeing who we really are. And when this false self gets challenged or offended or doesn’t get what it wants, it can lead to all kinds of trouble. The false self leads to all kinds of conflict in our lives: inner conflicts, conflicts with others, every kind of selfishness and sin. And it is this false self that Jesus is teaching about in the Gospel reading today.
We can get to know our false self by learning to recognize what our favorite peacock feathers are. The things we find most impressive and try attach ourselves to. In today’s culture fasting and going to church aren’t exactly the type of things that impress people. But there are other things. Other things we give tons of attention to because deep down we know it’ll improve the way others think of us. If you’re in high school it could be being popular, being good at sports, or sounding smart that you believe will impress the world. If you’re an adult that desire for popularity is still there—but we might call it being socially connected or having a large network. Maybe you think having a nice car or house or being successful will impress others. Maybe you hope your physical attractiveness or relationship status will impress the world. Maybe you seek to build your sense of self by your leadership role or by how well you raise your children. Maybe it’s thinking that if you make a positive impact on the world, you’ll get the attention you deserve.
It could even be your religious life that strengthens your identity, your false self. The amount of Bible reading you do. The number of sacrifices you make to help a good cause. The time you spend in daily prayer and meditation. Even these really good things can be usurped by the ego and used to strengthen our false self. The “spiritual ego” can be the trickiest of all to see. And that, of course, is precisely what Jesus is getting at in this passage.
To remedy the situation, Jesus invites us to practice what he calls “prayer in secret.” Keating stresses that this was Jesus’ term for contemplative prayer or meditation. Essentially, it’s sitting silently with God and getting to know ourselves, which will include observing our selfish patterns. Looking humbly at ourselves and letting go of what we find our security in now. Watching for those hidden motivations. Discovering the ways we subconsciously seek acceptance or superiority. Whether it’s through today’s value signals of popularity, wealth, or intelligence—or the more subtle ones like being a good person or being a spiritual, moral Christian. Whatever they are, our journey is about becoming aware of the ways we seek to build our false self, and to let that go. In this silent prayer in secret, we get to know our root motivations and it is in this genuine, honest, humble looking that true healing begins.
That type of honest, spiritual looking is the discipline this scripture invites us to practice in Lent. The heart of the spiritual journey—and what all the disciplines of Lent point to—is finding our true self, which is united with God.
Exploring the depths of our motivation is a scary thing. We’ll probably discover we’re a lot more selfish and sinful than we thought we were. We might uncover some things we don’t wanna see and learn how much our desire to impress our own self influences the things we do. But we’ll also come to see just how beloved and good we truly are at the core. The discipline of Lent is about discovering our own selfish tendencies and being freed from them. Letting go of what we think will improve our self-image, and trusting God’s judgement of us instead. God’s judgement that we are good. That we are forgiven. That we are loved.
When we look at humbly at ourselves, we realize more and more how eternally valued and loved we are. That is the truth about us. Despite all our insecurities and our need to build a sense of worth by being popular or successful or spiritual—we learn we don’t need any of that to define who we are. Because we are children of God! Today is a solemn day when we acknowledge our selfishness and sinfulness. But it is also a day to be reminded of our true identity as beloved, cherished, freed sons and daughters of the divine. Thanks be to God for claiming us and naming us as God’s own—for our true identity as God’s children.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.