In the same address, Jesus is talking to the crowd and seems to offer two contradictory pieces of wisdom:
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
There are plenty of people in the world who want to do good. But often if someone asks you for a favour, or you see an opportunity to help, your response is “what’s in this for me?” You might not ask it out loud, but your mind is scouting out potential benefits for doing this: this person now owes you a favour, while you’re doing it that girl you think is cute might see you and be impressed, doing this might be able to go on your résumé when you begin your job search later this month, your company could really use a PR boost and this donation could be just the thing… You wouldn’t be so rude to ask it, but secretly, you’re weighing up if it’s worth your time, effort or money to help out in this situation.
Jesus says that if you’re just helping out for the reward you can imagine just around the corner, then when you get that reward, you’re paid in full. Even though the work you’re doing is good, you’ve done it more as a business transaction than as an act of love. I’ll help you with this… and I’ll get this (from you or someone else) in return.
A truly transformed life, the kind of “kingdom” life Jesus is encouraging people to step into, will sooner or later result in the person wanting to do good… and not just as part of a business transaction. When a life is transformed by receiving grace, it goes on to want to give grace – you want to give to people who don’t deserve it, people who’ll never be able to pay you back.
Once this grace overtakes you and motivates you, it’s no longer about what you will get out of it. And you’ll start doing things and helping people where “the deal” clearly isn’t worth it for you – you’re giving a lot more than you’re getting. Perhaps you’re getting nothing, no one will even know. Jesus is saying that God loves it when we do this. When we give with no expectation of reward – at least not in any way we can imagine. When we do this – God promises to reward us generously later.
Ironically enough, it’s the person that cares least about public approval (and doesn’t give for that reason at all) that God wants to show off to the world. You see, people doing good is nothing to write home about. People do good all the time – most business deals are essentially someone helping someone else and being rewarded in return.
It’s the people who give and give with no expectation of repayment or reward – whose lives have been transformed by grace – that God wants to show off to the world. Their lives Jesus calls “light”, it contrasts the give/take nature of the world, and forces people to see that these people live life differently: they are no longer driven by what they get out of something, they are driven by love and by grace.
When people see this, they can’t help but glorify God in Heaven, whose undeserved love changes a life so radically that the person lives, gives and works because it’s right and because it’s good, not because of expected returns.
If most of the good you do will pay off, in recognition, in returned favours, in some round-a-bout way, then maybe you haven’t let your life be transformed enough yet. This is me at the moment. The cure then, is to deliberately try to do good, but in secret – not thinking about how you will be repaid for this, but focusing on the grace you’ve already received. And as you do this (and as I do), hopefully our attitude will change and the grace we’ve received will overflow into grace we give out.
And most things will remain under the surface – no one but you and God need to know about them. But a few will float to the top – like an iceberg, the majority of what you do will be unseen, but a small fraction pokes out above the water. When people see these, they’ll see that it’s different. These are not good things done for an expected return, these are good things done as an act of love – and that realisation will help them see God’s grace at work in your life, and lead them to glorify him.