That is one way that Jesus speaks of his heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St Matthew. He uses that expression when contrasting “hypocrites” with true disciples in the practice of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. (As we prepare to practice these during Lent, let us be forewarned as to what pleases the Lord and what doesn’t.)
The contrast is similar in each instance, and his teaching is summed up in the first verse of chapter six: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” In the case of almsgiving, the hypocrites loudly and publicly announce what they are doing, “that they may be praised by men.” When they pray, they call attention to themselves in public places, “that they may be seen by men.” When they fast, they ostentatiously make it known by their haggard looks, “that their fasting may be seen by men.” In all these cases, the Lord says: Do not do this. Why? The answer has to do with whatever return is received for these pious acts. If the hypocrites are looking for the praise, notice, and esteem of men, they will have that—and nothing else—for “they are already repaid.” But they will have “no reward from the Father who is in heaven.” What a complete waste of life!
It is different with the true children of God. When they give alms, they are do it out of the public eye, “so that your alms may be in secret.” When they pray, they are to go into their room and close the door, “and pray to your Father who is in secret” [or, who is hidden]. When they fast, their “fasting may not be seen by men, but by the Father who sees in secret.” In each of these cases, Jesus concludes by saying: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus wants us to have our reward from God and not to receive mere ego-building flattery or praise from others. It is interesting to note that in the Greek text, a different word is used for the repayment of the hypocrites and the reward from the Father. The hypocrites’ recompense is a kind of “refund” for their self-serving efforts, one that they exact from others by calling attention to themselves. This repayment is cheap and vaporous, for it comes not from God but from men. But the reward of God is literally a “restoration,” as if God’s grace makes up for whatever our acts of piety may cost us in the way of humble and hidden sacrifice. And his reward is beyond all proportion to our efforts to please Him and to serve his people.
That is why genuine Christians have to live on a different level than either the general narcissistic mind-set of the world or the self-righteous self-consciousness of today’s religious hypocrites. We walk under the gaze of “the Father who sees in secret” and who alone can assess the value of our pious works, and hence grant whatever reward it pleases his heart to bestow. Perhaps we would wish to be recognized for our good works because we have a guilty conscience about our bad works. But that is not going to win us a more favorable hearing at the Judgment Seat, because the Father already sees everything, the good and the bad, and He knows that nothing is to be gained (rather the opposite) by increasing the number of people who know of our good works.
About this hidden life that Christ enjoins, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: “One of God’s chief attributes is ‘the One who sees in hidden places.’ In a way we could say that God only sees in hidden places, that consequently the actions and attitudes of hypocrites in public places are not seen by God because they are not real. Hiddenness is here a crucial criterion for genuineness, for reality, for being-in-fact. How horrible not to be seen by God, to live in such a way that our lives are mere fleeting ghosts before him! …Hiddenness, solitude, and silence have the effect, so to speak, of gathering up the scattered atoms of our being and kneading them into an image recognizable in the eyes of God. The Father has made me a steward over myself, and interiority is the space where I do the work assigned me… No other human work can be successful unless it can be traced back to this essential activity that is purely interior: seeking the Face of God so as to abide in its presence with the deepest part of my being. The call to do this constitutes human identity.”
Here we receive a further insight into the profundity of Jesus simple words: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them… your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s not simply a matter of working for the better or lasting reward; it’s about realizing our true identity in the eyes of God by the way we conduct ourselves in this passing life. The attention-demanding and self-centered piety of the hypocrites will ultimately reduce them to spiritual wraiths who will who will go on trying to call attention to themselves (but with eternal frustration) in the abode of shadowy castoffs that hover on the brink of non-being—the place where even God no longer looks. But the humble seekers of the hidden Father who quietly work within the interiority of a self-effacing yet God-loving way of life, will be “restored” a hundredfold and more by Him who sees in secret. This is the “abundant life” communicated to us by the Lord.
Let us not think we’ve “heard it all before” when familiar Gospel passages are read. Rather, let us pay close attention when the Lord speaks, for He has the words of eternal life.