Lately I’ve been thinking about Matthew, chapter six, and how it applies to me and my life.
Matthew, chapter six, for those of you who do not know, has Jesus midstream in the Sermon of the Mount, talking about giving to the poor, and praying and being pious. The text is here (I point you to the King James version, because its language is pretty, but you can select more modern versions), and the gist of it is simple: if you do good things in order to be seen by other people doing good things, then that is your only compensation; God will reward you no further. But if you do them quietly and without any fuss, then God will indeed reward you in full, in heaven. The summation of this line of thinking is in verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” In other words: You are what you value.
I am an agnostic of the “I’m almost certain God does not exist, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I just don’t know” stripe, so in a obvious, literal sense Matthew 6 can’t do much for me. I don’t pray, and for the good works I do here in this world, I don’t expect compensation in the next, because I don’t believe there is a next world. Here and now is all we have.
But I know wisdom when I see it, and the underlying wisdom of Matthew 6 is universally applicable. It asks why one does good works: Is it to be seen doing good works, or because good works are in themselves are worth doing, regardless of public reward? Is it more important to be a good person or to be seen as a good person? The answers to these questions point to who you are.
I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were. In the science fiction and fantasy community, for example, I am a “big name.” My actions can be multiplicative. By being seen doing good, I can sometimes cause more good to happen. It’s a cool thing to be able to do.
But it’s a rationalization that avoids the actual question of why I choose to do good things. Am I doing it because I am doing what I feel is correct moral action? Am I doing it because I enjoy people telling me I am a good guy, and the one sure way to do that is to be seen being a “good guy”? At the end of the day, what is at the root of my drive to do good?
It’s easy to argue that in one sense it doesn’t matter. The homeless guy you give new shoes to doesn’t care whether you’re doing it to look good to others, to God or to yourself. What he cares about is the new shoes. And that’s a solid point to make. Actions matter in themselves. Good can result from actions undertaken for selfish reasons, or through vanity.
But I do think it matters, or at least it matters to me. There’s a line out there that says “Character is who you are when no one else is watching.” You are who you decide to be and how you choose to act, even when there is no penalty or reward outside of your own sense of self. I am vain; I like being seen doing good things. Separately, I have pride that when I choose to do good out loud, that it can make a difference in my community. But I also want to be the person who would do good things even if only I ever knew what I had done. I want to be the person who can choose to make life better for others even if those people never know. I want to have the moral courage to do right action for itself. I want to know that, stripped of vanity and pride, I will still choose to do good, and thus be good. I want to believe that I can be the better image of myself I hold in my head.
And that’s why Matthew chapter six turns over and over in my mind. It speaks to me because it speaks to how I live my life and who I want to be. It reminds me that it is difficult to strip away the ego and see right action as its own reward. It reminds me that even when I do good work out loud that the focus should be what I am doing, not that I am doing it. It reminds me that it’s fair when people question my motives. It reminds me how much work I have left to do on myself.
And I do have work to do. I am a flawed human being. I am vain. I am proud. I seek approval. I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always. It is the treasure, wherein hopefully one day I may find my heart.