Read Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 here.
Here at the start of the Lenten season, Jesus is getting at something that’s inside all of us – the desire to be seen by people. The need for an audience.
Now, some of us might be quicker to admit that than others. I personally come from a long line of wild and loud and outgoing characters. On my dad’s side, there’s a pattern of men who know how to get carried away, and strut, and show off. They’re called “McClendons.” For a few generations the grandfathers in that line have been known as “Papa Mac,” and my Papa Mac (like those before him) knew how to handle an audience. My dad and his brothers carry on the tradition. Get them all together and it could be the most hilarious and terribly embarrassing event on earth, particularly in public. And I know I feel that McClendon coursing in my veins sometimes. I know what it is to ham it up, and enjoy some spotlight.
At the same time, though, I’ve shared many times that I can relate to all the introverts and wallflowers out there. Especially as a kid, I was terribly shy. Not antisocial, mind you, but not a big fan of having other people’s attention on me. Anybody know what I mean? Like, there are those of us who would be perfectly satisfied blending in, and hanging back, and going unnoticed, for life. This is the group that’s going to try to disagree with the assumption that people in general like an audience.
But, I’ll wager that even the most meek and mild among us appreciates being noticed on occasion. When you feel particularly attractive one day, when the hair and look are working for you – that’s when it’s nice to be affirmed. More seriously, when you’ve endured a tough time, or had a final moment of victory (in big or small ways), or had a close call, who of us doesn’t wonder, “Was anybody looking? Did anybody see that?”
I think the need for some sort of audience starts in us from day one. After all, from childhood, where is one of the first sources of our own value? Whether or not mom/dad are looking and watching. And, what their eyes tell us about what we’re doing and/or who we are. As we grow, that expands and we start to be concerned about how siblings, friends, neighbors, adults and even strangers see us. We discover mirrors, and fantasy, and “masks” to hide the deficiencies and accentuate the positives that we see in ourselves. Gradually, the audience, and its influence, grows. Now, some of that is natural and probably okay, to be sure. We’re made to interact with other people and influence one another. And, ultimately, I think these desires are deep inside all of us because we’re made to be beheld by God, and for God to love what he sees. But Jesus warns us that the desire for an audience is one that’s easily corrupted, when we mistake who our audience is.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, gives us a great snapshot of that truth by taking a look at a typical worship service. You may have heard it before, but think about how we have things set up on a Sunday morning. People file in down the aisles and find their seats and face front. Programs are handed out. There’s music, intermissions of a sort, maybe applause, and a keynote speaker. The action happens front and center, often on a raised dais, no less than a stage. The crowd comes to have a deep experience, really, to be moved. People rate the service afterward based on their level of satisfaction. All in all, it feels like a production where, clearly, the clergy and choirs are the performers, and the people in the pews are the audience.
But, no. In worship, there is always and only an audience of One. And what happens there is ultimately only for the good pleasure of God Almighty. That means the attitudes and thoughts and actions of every single pew-sitter are equally as significant as the contents of the sermon or solo. We are present in worship in order to combine our talents and efforts, outwardly and inwardly, so that God might be glorified and find satisfaction.
It’s really vital that we get our audience right, isn’t it?
For Lent, if we spend a single day really devoted to the fact that God is our audience of One, I truly believe we will be drawing closer to our best, most true selves, and eternal life. If we can spend some part or all of these 40 days devoted to the fact that God is our audience of One, it cannot help but change us. Because, the thing about God as an audience-member is that he can’t be fooled. He isn’t interested in empty artistry, or superficial fluff. When God is our audience, we can’t get away with just acting. The word hypocrite, used over and over in Matthew 6, translates literally to “play actor.” And as we can see, Jesus won’t have it. When God is our audience he knows our deep intentions, and he sees the backstage moments behind the curtain when we let our guard down.
On the surface, that may not sound like good news. It sounds like an indictment since every one of us is going to bear some guilt over getting caught up in how others see us. It also sounds like a supremely daunting challenge, since a 24-hour omniscient audience of One doesn’t give us a single moment when no one is looking. But the excellent and most joyful news is that we also don’t need to fool God. We can stop trying. We don’t need to fool others. We can stop that great effort. We don’t have to keep secret our shameful things and try to exalt our glorious things. Our audience of One knows us more intimately than we do ourselves. Through the eyes of grace, he is already ultimately satisfied with us, and rejoices over us, and loves us fiercely. He came to us and died for us to make it so. Thanks be to God.