Keeping up appearances is something we all do from time to time. Sometimes this practice is beneficial, as when we steel ourselves to face serious challenges in our lives. In order to be courageous, we must embrace the paradox that we may first have to behave courageously, even when we do not sense it within us at the moment. We may also need to choose this behavior so that others will be encouraged, and not lose heart. But keeping up appearances is not always beneficial to our formation. Today’s readings give us some insight about appearances which are worth considering.
Matthew’s gospel includes very plain teaching about practicing various “righteous deeds” – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – “in order that people may see them.” From a distance, these practices seem desirable regardless of the interior motivation. After all, the poor still benefit from alms given by one with self-laudatory motives. And isn’t trying to pray or to master your desires at least a step in the right direction? Surely this beats blasphemy and gluttony!
Significantly, Jesus is not saying that rewards or incentives must be irrelevant to our choices. To the contrary, Jesus assures us that God does indeed reward righteous choices. But the nature of the reward differs, and we get to choose the form. We can choose the gratification of the praise of others, or we can choose another kind of reward from God, which is not so clearly defined.
Commentators suggest that the term we translate as “reward” for those seeking the praise of others is like a commercial receipt marked “paid in full.” The ashtray in my car is full of those receipts, and I eventually throw them all out. As we all know, the approval of others can be as phony as the things we do to generate it. Praise is sometimes false and conceals other undesirable consequences, including bitterness and envy. Even genuine praise is ephemeral. But it is nice while it lasts. And it is something, here and now. And it is also nice to see our detractors squirm, just a little, doesn’t it?
So what about that other reward from God? We know that our good deeds done in secret are not always greeted with an immediate pat on the head from above. Sometimes we go through difficult times wondering if God remembers us at all. The readings about Elijah and Elisha at Gilgal suggest that even great prophets with special insights into the mind of God sometimes needed reassurance. Miraculously parting waters would help, wouldn’t it? And surely that sent a message to the other prophets, too!
But miraculous signs are not the usual mode of operation. Recall that many people of faith have been close to God’s own heart, yet they suffered immensely. (See, e.g., Hebrews 11, and many later examples abound among the saints.) Our Lord shows us this truth most clearly through his own passion and death. Today’s psalm provides an exhortation to take comfort as we hope in the Lord. Can we pause and hear Jesus singing that to His Church today, as we sing our response back to Him?
Jesus does not specify the reward, but it must be far better than a receipt or even a “certificate suitable for framing” or even a plaque that will soon occupy a box in the basement. Something tells me that our reward for righteous deeds done in secret will come in an unexpected form that will reflect the generosity and grace of our God. Just as a fearful person is transformed by a courageous act, we may also be transformed by our acts, however feeble, oriented toward showing our love for God. That transformation is a wonderful gift that keeps on giving, and which will allow us to rejoice in God forever. Hallelujah!