“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
Over the past few days I was at a retreat with a group of youth ministry folks from the Pacific Northwest. While we were together, a leader shared that we needed to avoid the temptation to become “professional Christians.” By this he meant, of course, that we needed to be careful not to reduce our faith in Jesus Christ to simply a function of our church work.
As I think about my life, I realize that I’m about at close to a professional Christian as you can get. As an ordained minister teaching ministry classes and Church history at a Christian university, my life and faith is deeply enmeshed in the sometimes drudgery of the day-to-day tasks of work. Part of my job is praying. Repeating the same ideas year after year. Thinking “religiously” and helping others do the same. Analyzing faith from the inside and out. Making future pastors learn the technical details of the trade. This year I’m literally teaching students how to preach and read Scripture out loud.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that what I’m doing at my university is important. But in the midst of it, there is always the danger that I forget what is really important about it and turn the means into the end. This is why Matthew 6 is important: it offers words to a professional Christian like me.
Avoid public displays of generosity. Don’t pray publicly. Keep spiritual disciplines like fasting to yourself. In the life of teaching and ministry, of course, we can convince ourselves that each of these prohibitions are not for us. Because, after all, we need to model the Christian life for others, right? Don’t we need to practice our righteousness in public so that others will have a good model to follow? True as far as it goes, but within lies the danger that we therefore professionalize our faith in a way reminiscent of the Pharisees of old. Such depersonalization of our relationship with Jesus Christ can have dire effect. Used to being the center of attention in spiritual matters, we religious leaders can come–often unwittingly–to be enamored with the role and respect such realities afford us. Our faith is then no longer about God. It is about the work. It is about us.
Jesus, of course, says a strident no to all this. And before we think his instructions in Matthew 6 are just Messianic hyperbole we can gloss over, we ought to take the Sermon on the Mount at face value: a direct word to us. As Bonhoeffer helps us remember, it is not just about general or deeper principles–glossing over the trees for the forest. Rather, “his call is an actual call and he wishes it so to be understood, because he knows that it is only through actual obedience that a man become liberated to believe.” Does this mean that we never pray publicly again? Before we ever answer that question or explain it away, we need to remember that it was Jesus who asked it. Attention is demanded. If we don’t grapple with those words and let them shine light in our “professional Christian” lives, we run the risk of great danger.
Where have I embraced my professional Christian life so much that it has displaced the One around whom my existence is to be centered in the first place? What needs to die in order to correct this?