Private Piety and Public Deeds

Last night, a large group of young adults brainstormed how to reach their peers in the SF Bay. As I perused the ideas on post-its, a good number of them could have been classified under the category of advertisement. My own idea, is an example of this. I suggested we tangibly serve our neighbors by adopting a highway, with the added benefit of having the name of our community posted for all to see.

As I've been reflecting on this idea, Jesus’ words rattle in my mind, and two of his greatest teachings in Sermon on the Mount seem at odds:

“…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Mt. 5:16

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them.” Mt. 6:1

So which is it? Shall we be secretive, or strategically public about our good works? The answer to this question lies in distinguishing ‘good deeds’ from ‘acts of righteousness’. The former is meant to be public, the later private. Let us call public good deeds a matter of shining light, and public piety a matter of sounding self-righteous trumpets (Mt. 6:2).

Practically speaking, then, which actions ought we do secretly, and which out we put on a stand, so to speak? Jesus is clear that these should be private: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. (Mt. 6:2-18).

For the last several years, my Christian community has taken a Sunday off from services and spent the weekend serving those in need. And we haven’t hesitated to call the media. Shining light or sounding trumpets?

I’m curious what good deeds you would classify as ‘light-shining’. One more question comes to mind: Jesus refers to ‘letting’ our light shine - not shining our light, to it being seen, not to it being shown. Is there a principle here similar to that behind Jesus’ teaching to take the lowest seat at a table and be invited to a place of honor rather than claiming an honored seat for yourself. Is there something divine about waiting to be noticed rather than trying to get attention?