For the last several months I’ve been doing something that, for all I know, nobody else in the United States is doing. I’ve been learning to read Welsh by toddling through the New Testament.
That doesn’t make me unique. People do unusual things all the time; being unusual in one way or another is as common as rain. But when you are handling the words of Jesus one by one, like riddles, even though you know what the verses will say, you see that words like usual and unusual do not describe Jesus.
It isn’t as if Jesus stands at an extreme end of a spectrum of teachers in the ancient world. He teaches “with authority,” as the people remarked, amazed, even bewildered. He defers to no prophet or king, not even to Moses. He does not reason people into a benignant way of life, like Buddha, nor does he embrace the traditions of a gentleman, like Confucius.
We are to imitate Jesus, but Jesus never imitates us. He knows the heart of man, says Saint John, and he is like us in all things but sin, says Saint Paul, and he feels for our weakness, says the writer to the Hebrews, but it would sound like blasphemy to give Jesus a compliment, to call Him unusually perceptive. It would be like saying that light is unusually illuminating, or that beauty is unusually attractive.
I’m struggling to say that there is no one in the history of the world whom Jesus resembles; although many a saint, by the grace of God, has come to resemble Jesus. The Lord is unique. So are the great things associated with Him. There’s nothing in the ancient world that is like the Gospels – and that includes the foolish sham-gospels, flimsy and derivative things.
There’s nothing in the world that is like the Person or the events they describe. The great letters of Saint Paul are unique. The transformation of ordinary people into saints on fire to spread the Good News, unique; the kinds of people they became, unique; even the Shroud of Turin is unique – there isn’t any ancient artifact like it, and there isn’t anything close.
So I’m reading the Gospels slowly, in Welsh, and am compelled to dwell upon words that pass me by too quickly in English. “When you give alms,” says Jesus, “do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:2-3).
If we hear those words aright, we’ll experience the shock of something wholly unexpected, but which, when expressed, strikes us, if we are steeped in the wisdom of the law and the prophets, as fulfilling the whole of the Old Testament, even though no one in the Old Testament ever says anything like it.
Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches by James Tissot, c. 1890
And what of the ancient pagans? Aristotle praised the virtue of magnificence, the performing of visibly great deeds, especially by means of public generosity, because he took for granted that men desire honor. The lowliest mayor of a cowtown wants to emulate Augustus Caesar – to find Farmville in brick, and leave it, if not in marble, at least in shiny slates, and with new sidewalks; and he wants to be seen and known for it too, with a nice plaque on the village commons.
But there is Jesus, saying, Na wyped dy law aswy pa beth a wna dy law ddehau: Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing. No one ever said anything like it.
So let’s pause. Let’s not assume that it is an unusual metaphor expressing an unusual wisdom. Let’s assume that this unique Jesus, in saying this never-said thing, has expressed it also in a unique way. Then we will not reduce the metaphor to anything resembling a “Christian” common sense.
We’ll not then say, “Jesus recommends that we be quiet about it, when we give alms.” After all, there’s a way to win the approval of men quietly, so that you can double the glow of the pleasure, basking not only in the glory of your generosity, but in the knowledge that your beneficiaries cannot accuse you of pride.
No, if the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing, we must take care to hide our good deeds from the most fawning and flattering audience there can be – ourselves. How is that possible? We accuse the disciples of being slow to understand Jesus, and we’re right, they were slow. Are we any quicker? And did they not have cause to be slow? How can we hide ourselves from ourselves? How can we not know what we know?
I can’t answer my own question, but Jesus does give us a hint at where the answer must lie. “Your Father,” He says, “who sees in secret shall reward you openly.” We are, He has said, to be like that Father who makes His rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, in the mysteries of His wisdom and providence.
This is the Father who sees the recesses of the heart. He is the God who wishes to dwell in those recesses; to take away the heart of stone, even if it is gleaming marble stone, and replace it with a heart of flesh, a heart that beats with His life.
If we are to enjoy a reward, what better can it be than God Himself? So Jesus isn’t simply warning against ostentation. He’s inviting us into a complete surrender to the Father, so that we will not remain in our ignorant knowledge, and our alienating generosity. It is a call to be born again. And what is that? Can we toddle more than a step or two beyond the beginning of that?