Today’s scripture readings tell of two pitfalls in the spiritual life. The first, in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, is a lack of generosity. Paul writes: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly.” Today’s passage is part of a letter in which Paul encourages the Corinthians to contribute to a donation for the poor in Jerusalem. If the Corinthians give grudgingly (or reluctantly, or with a tight fist) Paul says that they will receive the same in return. “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly.” A lack of generosity pinches on and constricts our spiritual life.
The second pitfall, from the Sermon on the Mount, tells of practicing spiritual disciplines, not so much to deepen our spiritual life, but in order to impress others. “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” says Jesus. He then refers to the three pillars of Hebrew piety: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… Whenever you pray… do not stand and pray… at the street corners… Whenever you fast, do not look dismal…. to show others that [you] are fasting.” If we practice our spiritual disciplines in order to impress or to be seen by others, then, says Jesus, we have already received our reward.
Each passage tells what we can do to counter these pitfalls. To counter the pitfall of practicing our spiritual disciplines in order to be seen by others, Jesus urges us to do our spiritual practices in secret, where our Father who sees in secret will reward us. “When you give alms, don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing… Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door… When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.” To counter the pitfall of giving sparingly, Paul tells the Corinthians to give generously: “the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully,” and “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.”
As we give, I hope that we can take Paul’s words to heart and give cheerfully and abundantly. As we practice our spiritual disciplines, I hope that we can take Matthew’s words to heart and practice our disciplines discreetly, so that our Father who sees in secret will reward us.