Who Me—Showing Off

April 19, 1996


Who, Me?  Showing Off?

 Bands marching in formation, flags fluttering in the breeze, stirring music to make the pulse pound — no wonder a familiar piece of folklore claims that “everybody loves a parade.”  Especially old “Yankee Doodle Dandy” himself, George M. Cohan, who wrote  the stirring songs, “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” and once said :  “You won’t do any business, if you haven’t got a band:  the folks expect a street parade and uniforms so grand.”  Macy’s in New York City knows that.  So do people all over the country who put together parades for Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day and the 4th of July.  And because he went to parties and hung out with lively people I think that if he were present now  Jesus  would be somewhere in the sidewalk crowd, happily watching those parades.  But ask him whether personal or public piety should parade itself and you get a passionate negative.  In relaxed modern English, it begins like this:   Be careful not to make a show of your religion before others, for then you have no reward from your heavenly Father.  So when you do good to other people, don’t sound a trumpet like certain play-actors do in church and in the streets to make sure other people notice and admire them.   On the contrary, when you do some kind deed or act of charity, don’t let even your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Do good deeds quietly, so that your reward will come from the One who sees in secret.

Jesus  grew up in a world where there were plenty of chances to see the parade-ground mentality at work in religion, and it’s obvious he didn’t care for showoffs.  And in his customary way, he exaggerates to make the point.  The showoffs didn’t really blow a trumpet but they had ways of making sure that no one overlooked their good deeds.  I think most of us understand that temptation.  We may prefer that the nice things we do be found out without our help, but if there’s danger they may be overlooked, we’re tempted to blow the trumpet ourselves.   Or, to use a figure of speech more familiar, to beat the drum.  And that temptation may signal a sad kind of emptiness.  Crusty old  Thomas Carlyle remarked that it’s the empty that “is usually the loud; and, after the manner of a drum, is loud even because  of its emptiness.”  I knew a man in another church who was a compulsive drumbeater.  He never came up to me in church or in a social setting without telling me what great things he had just done.  I came to feel he must be a painfully empty and insecure man.

It’s surely no secret to anyone that some people show off their religion a great deal more than others do.  They talk about it at the drop of a hat, they shape their faces to look pious, they find ingenious ways to let us know about it when they do some act of unusual generosity.  It was no different in the time of Christ.  His people had three special ways by which they expressed their religion:  through charity, fasting and prayer.   Jesus had seen all these things done since he was a child, and had done them all himself.  But he noticed at some stage in his life that people do them in different ways and apparently from different motives.  Some gave their gifts, or prayed, or fasted in ways that guaranteed other people would notice and be impressed.  And watching all this, Jesus became fascinated by motives.

Most of us probably feel we can live more comfortably if we do not inquire too carefully into that particular topic, but a psychology class somewhere along the line usually forces us to consider how muddy and mixed our motives may be, expecially when the class agrees to experiment honestly  about what  prompts them to do certain things.  Not what they’d like to think  prompts them, but what really  does.  So, as part of the experiment, you have to think about an action for which you got a compliment, and then you start digging to find out what your real motive was.  Before long you often discover that it was somewhat different from the one people assumed, and not nearly so noble.

Then you dig still deeper and find little threadlike roots of motivation running down so far, and in so many directions, and in such hopeless tangles, that you no longer know for sure what your real intention was.  You decide, perhaps with good reason, that this way lies madness, and you give up the motive-chasing game.  I’m not suggesting that you play it again during this sermon by trying to be totally honest about some nice thing you did last week, but the topic this morning demands that we pay at least some attention to the question of motive.

I found a remark during the week that seemed to sum up what Jesus says in this part of the Sermon on the Mount — a comment made by a little remembered but very wise  Frenchman named Rochefoucauld, who says:  “We should often have reason to be ashamed of our most brilliant actions if the world could see the motives from which they spring.”  So it’s better to cultivate modesty and not advertise — even to ourselves.  In other words,  that we not allow ourselves the luxury of dwelling on a good deed, that we beware of the Little Jack Horner complex where we catch ourselves whispering:  “O, what a good boy am I!”  A Congregationalist minister named Lloyd C. Douglass wrote a bestselling novel based on this idea of keeping the left hand ignorant of the right hand’s good deeds.  The hero, Dr. Hudson, and a few other characters become obsessed with trying to do kind and generous things without letting anybody else know about it.  I was deeply moved by it when I read it as a boy, and even tried to act like Dr. Hudson at times, only to discover how almost impossible it is  to do something especially decent and good without finding some way to leak the secret and get a pat on the back.

Jesus saw another example of pious ostentation which upset him.  Like his neighbors, he fasted on occasion, but without flaunting it in front of others.  There were five or six required fasts each year in the Jewish religion, but many of the super pious kept two of them each week, on Monday and Thursday, the days when Moses was imagined to have gone up, and come down from, Mount Sinai.  As part of the fasting ritual they refrained from washing their faces, they put on drawn looks, they went about with bare feet and ashes on their heads.  Jesus felt that for many of them it was just another parade of solemn piety designed for public consumption.  So he said, “When you fast, don’t go around looking gloomy like those who disfigure their looks so people will know they are fasting.  When you fast, go ahead and do the normal things — brush your hair, wash your face — and let your fasting be a secret between you and God.”   I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to fast I want someone to be impressed — so this is a tough piece of advice.

Not many Americans  even consider fasting as a form of spiritual discipline, but there are other ways that may tempt us to advertise our goodness.   I think of a female relative who constantly uses religious vocabulary to make sure we are all aware of  her of faith.  Or  the minister who cultivates a kind of exhausted holy look that will prove how pious he is, and may serve — incidentally — to keep people from making more requests on his time.  They are both members of that sizeable group to whom Jesus says, “Well, you have gotten the reward you wanted, but it’s  poor stuff compared with the genuine love and respect you might have had without all the display.”  The lesson from Christ is unmistakable:  be religious, but do it without working hard to look religious.

I’m going to veer only slightly off course for a moment to remind you that showing off is by no means confined to  religion.  In an essay I once assigned to students in a Freshman honors class, Judith Viorst has fun with social exhibitionism.  She describes the intense young woman at a party whose voice literally throbs as she cries out about poverty, injustice and war with such anguish over the anguish of humanity that her audience shifts from the problem  to how very, very deeply she obviously cares about it.  She’s showing off.  Or the scholarly guy at the other end of the room who has just dropped the words angst,  hubris, Kierkegaard and epistemology  in the same sentence.  He, too, is showing off.  And then there’s the woman who, no matter when we call her or what we need, will tell us before we can even get started how tired she is today because she went off to work, rushed back home to see her son’s school play, shopped at the market, hurried  home to cook  dinner, and then needlepointed another dining-room chair. Another way of advertising virtue.

I would propose that all of us feel some need to show off, no matter how often we’ve been told that it’s bad to boast and trashy to toot our own horn.  I would also suggest that there are times when showing off may be forgiveable, may even be acceptable.  But there are two kinds of flaunting that are not acceptable.  Like the strutting motivated by the competitive showoff who is driven  to outshine everybody else.  Whatever is being discussed, he has more expertise or money,  better dentists or children than anyone else..  And like the narcisstic showoff who doesn’t bother to compete like that because he can’t imagine there’s anybody who could  compete.  He talks  nonstop, he brags, he quotes  Homer in Greek — he is dedicated to stardom in front of any and all audiences.

A much more sympathetic type is the insecure showoff, who does it because, as a close friend once explained to me, “How will they know I’m good unless I tell them?”   And whatever the message — “I’m smart, I’m a fine human being, I’m this incredibly passionate lover” — insecure showoffs have many different techniques for telling about it.  Using flashy words no one else has ever heard, for example, or being sure to wear the Phi Beta Kappa key to parties, or dropping some glittery name to prove they are friends of famous people.    Secure people know that sooner or later, without their having to announce it, their  accomplishments will be known — and if not, the world survives.  Isn’t it refreshing when you discover that the quiet mother of four with whom you’ve been chatting all evening has recently been nominated for a Nobel prize — and she never even mentioned it?

But that’s a rarity, so for those of us who need a dose of praise now and then but would like to be thought modest, there is a handy and much-used trick:  you keep quiet yourself,  and let someone else sing your praises.  Marriages are handy for that.  It may take a little coaching or prompting one another before we go off to the party, but it works.  While Betty mentions Jack’s promotion and Jack casually drops the word that Betty sold eight of her ten paintings at the last art show, each can lean back with a modest shrug and never once be guilty of showing off about themselves.  It’s mostly harmless, and often motivated by real marital affection.

But it was  part of the genius of Christ to prefer  people who do not posture or encourage others to posture in their behalf.  He would have liked the moment when two religious leaders went one day to talk with Ramakrishna, the Hindu reformer and mystic.  Greatly impressed, they declared that he must be an Avatar, an incarnation of the Divine.  Ramakrishna is said to have heard this with complete indifference, and to have said:  “Well, fancy that!  I’m glad it’s not a disease….but believe me, I know nothing about it.”  He is in a direct line of descent from Someone Else who centuries before had said to some disciples who had praised him excessively, “Why do you call me good?  There is no one good but God himself.”

  1. S. Lewis defined the truly humble person this way: “Don’t imagine that if you meet such a man he will be like what most people call humble. He won’t be greasy, always telling you that he is nobody.  Probably all you’ll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.  If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.  He won’t be thinking about himself at all.”

I’m especially fascinated by the third kind of pious parading that Jesus talks about in these verses, but to do it justice I have to wait until  next Sunday.  In the meantime, I leave you with a strange little poem by Stephen Crane who had met one too many of the self-righteous.  In a miniature sermon on Judgment Day, with people caricatured as blades of grass, he says what I’ve just spent 20 minutes not saying nearly as well.  He does it like this:

In Heaven,

Some little blades of grass

Stood before God.

“What did you do?”

Then all save one of the little blades

Began eagerly to relate

The merits of their lives.

This one stayed a small way behind,


Presently, God said,

“And what did you do?”

The little blade answered, “Oh, my Lord,

Memory is bitter to me,

For if I did good deeds,

I know not of them”

Then God in all His splendor,

Arose from His throne.

“Oh, best little blade of grass!” He said.


God of the secret and unself-conscious heart, show us some good thing to

do this week, and make us wish for no praise but yours.  Amen.