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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Spiritual Good Deeds Rewarded?

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

On the TV show Friends there’s an episode where Joey volunteers for PBS’s annual telethon. Phoebe doesn’t like PBS and tells him that he’s not doing a good deed; he just wants to be a on TV. Joey- who is a struggling actor- says that there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed anyway, so he’s happy to do a good deed that also gets him television exposure. Phoebe spends the rest of the episode trying to prove that there is such a thing as a selfless good deed. But every time she does a good deed, she feels good about it and realizes she got something out of it. Finally, during Joey’s PBS telethon, she calls Joey to donate. She tells him she still doesn’t like PBS and that she doesn’t feel good about it but donates anyway. She hangs up thinking she’s proven her point. Then she sees on TV that the host says Joey was the volunteer who received the final phone donation to meet their goal. Phoebe realizes it was her donation and feels good about it! And the episode ends with the debate about selfless good deeds still unresolved.

In the Gospel text we read this evening, Jesus is addressing selfish good deeds. Jesus critiques the hypocrites, presumably the scribes and Pharisees, who pray and fast and donate to those in need—not because praying or fasting or donating are wrong in themselves, but because of the motivation behind them. He critiques them for doing these things in order to be seen by others. To gain themselves glory. To enhance their self-image. To make other people see how wonderful they are. It’s not that praying, fasting, or donating are bad in themselves—but the motivation behind them matters. If the motivation behind those things is to improve your self-image, make yourself look good, or feel like you’re a spiritual master—then you’re a hypocrite like the scribes and Pharisees.

Lent is a season about spiritual discipline. And so we begin each Lent by reading this text to remind ourselves to practice spiritual disciplines for the right reasons. We should do spiritual practices. But not to make ourselves look good or feel holier than thou. Rather, in order to grow in closer relationship with God.

In this passage, which falls into the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is outlining what proper spirituality should look like. He’s teaching his disciples that the inner spiritual journey is between you and God. It’s not something to advertise to the world. And it’s not something to use to build up your ego or public image.

Instead of praying as the hypocrites do, Jesus teaches us to “pray in secret” and to do our spiritual practices in a way that doesn’t seek to impress other people, but in a manner that’s seen by God alone.  Jesus calls us to check our motivations and be honest with ourselves about why we do the things we do.  Jesus calls us to deepen our spiritual lives for God’s sake, to grow in our relationship with Him.  To pray not because we want others to see how close we are to God, but because we genuinely want to be close to God.

Now Jesus’ point isn’t that there should no benefit at all from good deeds or spiritual practices.  He does say “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  There is a reward to spiritual practice, that is the reward of spiritual growth and transformation, of deepening our relationship with God.  That’s a wonderful reward, the best reward there is!  And that’s a reward God wants us to seek because it’s what we were created for.  It’s not wrong to try and grow closer to God.  It’s not wrong to desire spiritual wholeness.  In fact, it’s God’s will for us to do that.  Living in alignment with the divine is what humans were created for!  Sometimes that leads to a wonderful feeling of peace and joy.  And sometimes that may lead to being called to make sacrifices and enter into suffering; to stand up for the oppressed and put ourselves at risk.  But whatever God’s will leads us to, seeking to grow closer to God and to discern God’s will is certainly a good thing.  The trouble is we can convince ourselves we’re doing God’s will when it’s really our own ideas—which is why Jesus emphasizes the need to pray in secret and to be aware of our hidden motivations.  We should always be a bit suspicious of our motivations when we feel like what we want to do is God’s will.  It may just be our own ego pretending.

There’s a prayer that I think reflects this idea well.  A prayer written by Thomas Merton, which we’ve included in your bulletin this evening.  Thomas Merton prays as follows:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always

though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Merton’s prayer reflects the idea that we may not know what really motivates us to do the things we do. Nevertheless, we can trust in God to guide us. In a way, the comedian friends Joey and Phoebe have something in common with Jesus and the monk Thomas Merton. They all call us to question our motivations. They urge us to wonder about how our selfishness may be trying to convince us to do something we think is good but is actually self-serving. At the end of the day, the Friends episode, the Merton prayer, and the Gospel text call us to humility about our motivations.

So this Lent, let us dedicate ourselves to spiritual humility and trust God’s guidance as we become more self-aware and more dedicated to our spiritual practice. Let us see Lent as a time to reflect on our motivations; a time to use discernment and refine our hidden motivations. A time to grow closer to God and seek to alignment with God’s will. A time to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual journey. A time to follow Jesus, even to the cross. And we know that no matter what we do, God’s love for us remains. A love which carries us through life. A love which indeed leads us by the right road. A love which calls out our selfishness and sin, and heals us. A love which redeems the world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian | Ash Wednesday 2024

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