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.