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?


  1. I think the answer to your question comes from the Old Testament. Light in the old testament is a metaphor for God's righteousness. Look up Proverbs 4:18, Psalm 119:105, Psalm 18:28, and Isaiah 49:6. Do not be afraid to be obedient to the will of our Creator. Do not allow others to influence your behavior to give up your faith.

    On the other hand, acts of righteousness is better interpreted as charity. If you "blow trumpets" while giving charity, you will humiliate the one who receives the money or food. Give freely and loan without interest to those who are in need. If they cannot pay you back, the loan is a gift. For those who give freely and generously, they will be more blessed than the ones who receive. Look up verses Leviticus 34:10, Psalms 112:9 and Proverbs 28:27.

    In addition, the Rabbis have also interpreted these old testament verses just as Jesus. Here are a few citations.

    Talmud: Bava Batra 10a - 10b: What kind of charity is that which delivers a man from an unnatural death? When a man gives without knowing to whom he gives. and the beggar receives without knowing from whom he receives.

    Chagiga 5a: Rabbi Yanai once saw a man give money to a poor man publicly. He said, “It would have been better for you not to have given him anything rather than giving to him as you did, causing him embarrassment.”
    Brachot 58b: Rabbi Chana ben Chanila “would keep his hand in his pocket, so that when a poor person would ask for money, he would not feel humiliated.”
    Shekalim 5:6: There was a secret chamber in the Beit HaMikdash where pious people would leave money in secret and those who had been well-to-do but had become poor would come and take in secret.