The Bottomless Praise Pit

One of the bread and butter tactics of fundraisers is offering naming rights for big gifts. Universities and Hospitals and Art Museums abound with wings and fields and centers named after big donors. I understand that the missions of these institutions are good and that perhaps the end justifies the means.  But the Ash Wednesday gospel reading from Matthew gives Christians a clear rule of life: never ever attach your name to any gift.

This is why we resisted naming rights when we did our capital campaign for our organ and renovation. This kind of glorification of the self is clearly at odds with Jesus’ teaching. Today we read about acts of piety, but it extends out to all of life. Not many of us have the means to have a wing named for us, but that doesn’t mean that we are exempt from the same impulses.

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret”

Then Jesus goes on in the same vein about praying and fasting.  Basically, He’s going after our desire for recognition – to be appreciated and lauded for what we are doing or what we have done. If we do what we do in order to be praised by others, then the very acts themselves, no matter how good, have no enduring value.

It seems to me that in this Ash Wednesday reading Jesus is going for the jugular of what most human beings crave for – praise from others.  The pat on the back, the Heisman trophy, the employee of the month award, the credit that I’m due.

A husband I know is the worst offender in this area. Let’s say he does the vacuuming or folds the laundry while his wife is out on and errand.  When his wife comes home, probably harried and tired from doing a thousand things for the family, if she doesn’t immediately burst into ecstatic praise about the dust bunny free hallway or the neat piles of tee-shirts, then the husband either sulks or leaps in with “Hey! Did you notice that I vacuumed and folded the laundry!” even before his wife could put the groceries down on the kitchen table.

It doesn’t really matter that he was supposed to do the vacuuming and fold the laundry days ago, or that his wife says “Paul (let’s just say she calls him that) – I was going to say something if you’d just given me the chance!”

It’s no secret that the problem with praise from others (in addition to the fact that your need for it is deeply annoying to those around you) is that praise is never enough. Your praise pit is bottomless.

The author David Foster Wallace recognizes this.   

I can remember being twenty-four years old and having my, you know, smiling mug in The New York Times Book Review, and it feeling really good for exactly like ten seconds. And then you’re hungry for more…. all this stuff…will work for a second, but then all it does is set up a hunger for more and better.”

Obviously Jesus knew this. It seems that his steering us away from naming rights or public, showy prayer or recognition for having folded the laundry is actually for our own good. In fact, so total is Jesus’ opposition to our clamoring for recognition and praise, that He says that we shouldn’t even recognize – or even know about!- our own actions. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

That’s quite a statement. Our giving, praying, and good works are to completely unselfconscious acts. They are not to be deliberate or intentional or disciplined. Instead, they are to be secret, unheralded, and unrecognized even by us. This means that if you are giving something up or taking something on for Lent, not only should you not tell anyone about it, you shouldn’t even be aware of what you’re giving up! Your left hand should be completely in the dark about what your right hand is doing.

Oswald Chambers wrote a devotional book about 80 year ago that many people still use. Known for his deep cutting zingers, he asks, “Are you ready to be less than a mere drop in the bucket – to be so totally insignificant that no one remembers you even if they think of those you served?

Well, the honest answer to that question is “No!” And given my faulty wiring and bottomless praise pit I doubt I will ever be ready to be totally insignificant and unremembered. But the good news for me, and other sinners this Ash Wednesday is that there was One who answered “yes.”  The scripture tells us that Jesus Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

One wonders if the Father’s right hand knew what the Son’s left-handed death on the cross was doing. You’d think not as Jesus cries out “O God, why have you forsaken me.” In the end, though, His death is enough. It is enough to lay waste to our petty striving for praise. It is enough to forgive us when we know this and still strive. One day, when all the praise will be given to Whom it rightly belongs, his death will be enough to fill us from the bottom to the top.