What Will We Do With Our Phrase? A Matthew 5:16 Reflection

One thing I’ve grown up to believe in Christianity is that being a Christian is not about us. It’s not about what we do or how we act or what we believe. It’s all about Jesus.

That’s why I was confused this morning when I read Matthew 5:16.

I was praying this morning — an infrequent occurrence, by the way — when I thought of the idea of the “light on a hill.” Seeking some kind of encouragement, I turned to Matthew 5:16 and found these words: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I was encouraged, yes, but also slightly confused a bit. 

After all, why would we want to act so people could “see your good works.” Isn’t this the Jesus who also said a little bit later, in this same sermon, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1)? 

Now, what I would normally take from this surface-level contradiction is that it is no contradiction at all. In fact, the essence of Jesus’ teaching lies in the purpose of your works. Are you doing it “in order to be seen” by others, as He warns against in Matthew 6, or to encourage others to “give glory to your Father in heaven,” as He encourages in Matthew 5:16? But as I pondered this, a realization crossed my mind.

Far too often, I’ve withheld my efforts or not made them known for fear of people thinking I’m bragging about myself. Individuals spending a lot of time talking about themselves is one of my major pet peeves, perhaps because I grew up with the attitude that it’s not about me. 

But in Matthew 5:16, isn’t Jesus encouraging His disciples, and thus passing words of wisdom onto us, to make their good deeds visible and known? That seemed blasphemy when I first thought of it. It seemed like the most arrogant thing to do. But if Jesus encouraged it, it has to be good, it has to be right. After all, Jesus did most of His works in public. At varying times, He did tell some of those He healed or helped to refrain from sharing the news, while at others he made no such request. And clearly His disciples saw no issue in writing down or sharing His works for future generations, or at least for the ones immediately after them. 

So if Jesus says it’s good to do good works, and it’s His command that others see it, shouldn’t we be visible with our good works? Shouldn’t we make it plain what we’re doing? 

The trick, I think, comes in the intent. Doing good things for the sole purpose of making yourself look good is no better than the self-righteous Pharisees and those who gave their alms to the poor with trumpets blowing, drawing attention to their charity. But doing good things for making the world a better place, and thus leaving an opportunity to tell people, “This is what God’s love leads me to do,” is something altogether different. It’s an act of love and giving, a way to encourage others to do good things and an opportunity to receive praise and say, “Jesus is the reason.”

I believe this is Jesus saying He wants us to be part of the story of humanity, and He’s challenging His disciples — and, through them, us — to make a difference in the world in a noticeable way. He’s asking us to write our phrase in a sentence in a section on a page in a chapter of the book of human existence. 

What is our phrase going to look like? What words will be used to describe us and our impact? Why will our phrase be one worth reading? What difference will we make with the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds we have? This is not an attempt to shame or guilt those who may feel they are “wasting” their lives in light of this — that’s a whole other conversation, and one I’ve been having with myself a lot lately. But how will we use the time we have? 

I think it’s allowing God to use you, but not in a “I don’t matter, He does” way. It’s in a way where we choose how we’re going to be that light on a hill, and when people ask us why we do it, we say why. We say it’s the love of Jesus spurring us on, not just to obedience but to making a difference in the world.

We’re not here just to wait for Jesus to come back — although I wish that day were today. We’re here to create a place where there are lights on every hill. And think about what a light does — it shows what’s happening, it attracts people to it, it removes darkness. That’s what we’re called to be. Don’t be afraid to do it visibly. 

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