Let Your Light So Shine

The Sun, by Edvard Munch

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, New American Standard Bible)


Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, so that they will be praised by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your charitable giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NASB)

What are we to make of these two seemingly irreconcilable directives from the Sermon on the Mount? The first directs the Christian to shine his light “before people in such a way that they may see your good works”; the second directs him to “take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them.” Are we to show our good works to those around us, or conceal them?

Some suggest that these two directives are intentionally contradictory, and that the Christian must determine on a case-by-case basis whether to reveal or conceal works of righteousness, balancing the possibility of encouraging others to righteousness with the risk of self-aggrandizement. Perhaps it’s more a matter of how one shows one’s good works; if one shows them modestly and with discretion, perhaps one can thread the needle and obey the spirit of both mandates. 

This is possible, but I’d like to suggest another possibility, a reading of Matthew 5:16 that is consistent with Matthew 6:1 and thus unifies Jesus’s ethical teaching on the question of disclosing one’s good works. There is an ambiguity in the language around the Greek word outous, which means “in such a manner” and is translated as “so” in the King James Version and as “in such a way” in the NASB quoted above: “Let your light shine before men in such a manner..” To what does this comparative word outous, “in such a manner,” refer? Does it refer backward to verse 15, ie “Let your light shine before men in the manner of a candle on a lampstand”? Or does it refer forward to the remainder of verse 16, ie “Let your light shine before men in such a way that, seeing your good works, they glorify your Father in heaven”?  

There is good textual reason to prefer the former reading; after all, what is the point of verse 15 if not to serve as an exemplary image for verse 16? 

But I prefer the latter reading, which, as I understand it, is not ruled out grammatically. “Let your light shine before people in such a way that, seeing your good works, they glorify your Father in heaven.”  What is “such a way”? How is it that somebody, seeing my good work, would be led to glorify God rather than to praise me? If I perform the work anonymously, secretly, discreetly, or invisibly, then those who witness it can only praise and glorify God, lacking any human agent to credit. I surrender proprietary claim to my good work and it becomes part of the goodness and grace of creation, streaming from the Father of all. 

The exegetical advantage of this interpretation is that it reconciles a seeming contradiction in Jesus’s ethical teaching. The practical advantage of this interpretation is that it makes clear the Christian teaching in regard to works of righteousness: perform them anonymously and secretly, though their goodness may still shine to those who receive it like a candle in a window. And the existential advantages of this interpretation are overwhelming: it frees us from the ego entrapment of social status-seeking, which always and without exception blinds one to the kingdom of heaven around us. 

This is not to say that there is never a place for sponsored philanthropy or for publicizing one’s charitable works. Indeed, such disclosure might encourage others as an example, or draw attention to an important cause, or lend one’s personal social capital to a worthy effort, etc etc etc. These are real and positive effects, but they do their work within a transactional social and ethical economy governed by efficacy, investment, outcome. And hey, that’s the world we live in; it can’t be escaped. These works often improve the quality of life for recipients in real and praiseworthy ways. As Jesus said, “they have their reward.” Go and do, if you can and want to. But be aware of where you are amassing treasure.

Works of righteousness performed anonymously and surrendered to the goodness of creation participate in an altogether unconditional and unaccountable reality that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven. This is the reality that Jesus invites his disciples to see and enter. The philosopher John Caputo writes, “The Kingdom of God is not a reward for [works of mercy]; the kingdom is these works.” And again, “the kingdom of God is nothing to be sought, and this because, as Jesus said, it is already within us. It does not come after, because it is now.”

Perform works of mercy, which shine in a dark world like a candle in a window. But perform these works in such a way that, seeing their light, people are moved to praise and glorify God, not you. This is the kingdom of heaven. 

11 comments for “Let Your Light So Shine

  1. Also remember the condemnation to those who bury their talents (Matthew 25:14-30), as long as we’re not doing them for the praise of the world, they can be a good way to let our light shine and glorify God. Jesus specifies just three ways that worshiping ought to be done in private–fasting, prayers and alms; we can let our light shine in pretty much all other areas. But whether in private or in public worship, we should always have an eye single to the glory of God.

  2. On the narrower matter of textual interpretation, rather than reconciling the passages with a blanket policy of anonymity and invisibility, I see them as unified in Jesus’ concern about our tendency to seek the approval of other people over the approval of God.

    The first passage comes hard on the heels of the final beatitude declaring the persecuted blessed. It is a warning against an unwillingness to witness to the world out of fear of pointing fingers from the great and spacious building.

    The other passage highlights the danger of doing even good things for the wrong reasons—in particular, the hope and expectation of praise from our fellow coreligionists, thereby only “play acting” a pure heart, the implication being that one would not so act absent an audience. (My recollection of Wayment is that “hypocrite” means “actor,” as in a play.)

    What unifies the two passages, then, is that Jesus is addressing the spiritual sickness of undue concern for others’ approval and adulation, with the apparent contradiction arising from temptations to play to two different kinds of audiences.

  3. It’s fashionable in certain circles to bash GiveThanks and LightTheWorld. My impression is that the critiques sometimes come from those who regard themselves as different from your average Latter-day Saint in some way, and find the visible labels an all-too-convenient—and at times even preening—means of highlighting those differences. What a mountain of signaled virtue there is to be mined by imputing virtue-signaling to others.

    To be sure, reminders of the potential pitfalls of visibility are always salutary, but I don’t think a blanket policy of invisibility is any kind of silver bullet—whether in works, or words (should all publishing be done anonymously or pseudonymously?). For instance, it would surely even be possible to take personal pride in one’s anonymity! Whether by way of initiative or corrective, I suppose doing and preaching goodness are always fraught, since a belief that one is “moral” or “correct” to so do or say is implicit in the act. And of course, we can’t retreat to a position of doing and saying nothing.

    I think the most we can say is that continuous and searching self-policing of our own hearts, intents, and motivations should always be the order of the day—along with trying to refrain from similar policing of others’ hearts, intents, and motivations. (Both of these are really hard; I probably fail on both counts in writing this comment.) I think this is an important key to interpreting the totality of Jesus’ reported teachings in light of his reported lived ministry, and those of his disciples, ancient and modern.

    So while there are surely any number of examples of excess and self-righteous ill use of collective initiatives for good, on GiveThanks and LightTheWorld I’m going to stand with the simple goodness and pure-minded joy of your average Latter-day Saint, and the body of saints as a whole.

  4. I love the way you teased out a tension that I experience but never really noticed. It’s especially relevant to the church’s recent invitations to participate in social challenges that some people found problematic. I also like how you touch on public displays of philanthropy which I have sometimes felt discomforted by. Thanks.

  5. Matthew 6:1 looks like a purpose clause to my rusty Greek eyes, which is explicitly brought out in the wording of the NASB. “Beware of practicing your piety before others *in order to* be seen by them.” It’s the motivation that is the problem, not necessarily the visibility. That said, I like your take.

    Also, rusty as I may be, outos has a rough-breathing mark, which means a slightly aspirated houtos.

  6. I like this for the practical and existential reasons most of all. The exegesis is interesting. It had never occurred to me to ask the question, and in fact I had to pause to see a tension between chapter 5 and chapter 6. I suspect I jumped to the forward purpose–so that they may glorify your Father–from first reading and never looked back.

    If called upon to reconcile, I’d start with the idea that good works will always be seen. I take it that’s the sense of the city that can not be hidden, where I understand the Greek translated as “can not” to be the absolute negative (in English we distinguish between the absolute “can not” and the qualified “may not” or “must not”). From there it becomes natural to pay attention to what we do have control over, which is the identity of the doer and the ultimate credit given.

    I suppose the next question is how to think about using an institution for identity and credit? If I remain anonymous but I make sure my church or my school or my favorite charitable organization is recognized, surely that is a kind of virtue in a transactional world. But is it for the glory of God?

  7. There is a cultural element to this. Non Americans are more likely to quietly do good, without having to announce it. Note on the giving thanks on faccebook thing Uchtdorf doesn’t. https://zelophehadsdaughters.com

    I was uncomfortable with the social media part of being thankfull. If you are thankfull on the one week of the american holiday, and announce it, you have not become a thankfull person. You were not asked to become a thankfull person, so you were obedient, but you didn’t get closer to being Christlike.

    I didn’t see much of giving Christ the glory. The glory was to themselves, or RMN.

  8. How about doing good because it’s the right thing to do? Not because we want praise in this life or the next. Not because we want to glorify Christ, Allah, etc. Not because we expect it to help elevate us to the Celestial Kingdom, Nirvana, etc. Do we have to have an incentive to do good? I would hope not.

    Overthinking scriptures is frequently an unnecessary exercise.

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