Today’s questioner tackles a tension they see in scripture—a tension between two commands of Christ.
The question is this: “Explain how one should not “hide your light under a basket” and yet not “let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
As with many passages in scripture, there are contradictions—some real, some imagined.
And this shouldn’t surprise us—the record of God’s actions among God’s people strewn over a dozen centuries and 3 continents is going to contain some tensions.
But, the questioner might be a little worried, because this seeming contradiction—between revealing light and hiding actions—comes from Jesus’ own lips…
more than that, in one instance it comes from the same speech, the Sermon on the Mount, in the same Gospel, Matthew’s!
So, in order to answer how we can reveal light and hide hands, we will have to answer a few prior questions.
“What light is supposed to be revealed?”
“What is Jesus getting at with these two commands?”
“How do we do both?”
1. The first thing to note is that Jesus’ command to not “hide your light under a basket” is found in two gospels
—the light not to be hid signifies different things depending on what gospel we are reading.
In the earliest of the two gospels, Mark
—Jesus is describing what a parable does to a person. It wraps up a truth, but the more we ponder the parable, the story, the more the truths encapsulated in the story come out.
A parable is like fuel to the fire of truth.
Soon enough the whole house is alight with it.
It’s like I always say about Parables:
You are meant to chew on them, until they start to chew on you.
Matthew’s Gospel, in contrast, places Jesus’ admonition about not hiding your light under a basket within his Sermon on the Mount. He starts preaching immediately after healing those who come to him. After that healing, he blesses “poor, mourning, meek, hungry, peaceful, persecuted, people.” Then he states, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world
—you can’t be hid,
the lamp goes on the lamp stand and gives light to the whole house.”
Think about that setting…
“You’re healed now. You were poor, mournful, hungry, etc,” now you’re rich, joyful, and filled… don’t misuse that gift, don’t hide that fact. “Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.”
So, Mark’s account is describing the fiery strangeness of Parables.
Matthew’s Gospel describes the proper response to being healed
—the way in which grace
—the gift of God
—is a calling upon our life, it makes us to be people who point to our healing
and work for the healing of others,
all to honor God.
2. Let’s go with this second use of do not “Hide your light under a basket,” since it’s the one found in the same speech as do not “Let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
Sat next to one another, we quite quickly we see the difference between the two—the point at which the seeming contradiction breaks down.
Shine forth your light so they can give honor to God.
Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing—give alms in secret—because otherwise you are “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen.”
See the difference? Pointing to God, or pointing to yourself.
-The first, is like the Olympic torch, it’s lit by a previous torch and points backward toward an original one—that first Olympic game shrouded in mystery and myth.
-The second, is personal pyrotechnics—blowing something up so everyone turns their attention toward you for a moment.
It’s Humility versus Hubris.
It’s a question of intention
Jesus’ point is that the inner purpose behind our actions shapes shape their meaning
—with our actions, do we intend to point to God our to ourselves?
3. And that sounds good—but how can you tell the difference? Sure, it’s easy to interpret it in other people—humans are social animals and can usually sniff our hubris pretty well… but how about within ourselves?
How can we tell when we’re lighting a torch instead of blowing something up?
How can we protect ourselves from hubris?
How can we make sure our intention is to point to God?
Think of the two examples of this light we have in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels
—as a parable that burns you up inside and eventually appears on the outside pointing to a formerly hidden truth,
—and as thanksgiving to God for the blessed healing they’ve received through Christ Jesus.
That’s part of the reason we all come to Church
—at least I hope it is…
we’re practicing stories so true that they burn us up inside
and practicing giving thanks for all that is from God.
We do this for many reasons, but one of them is to work on our intentions. To transform our hypocrisies and hubris into humility.
How can we not practice our piety before others, yet shine forth our light in such a way that it honors God?
We change our intentions by :
Letting the strange and powerful stories of God shape us
And by seeing what God has given us and giving thanks.