Category Archives: Bible – NT – Matthew

Vanity, charity, and intentionality

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— Matthew 6.1-4

“There are many things done by man which are noble in themselves but still because of some reason are not noble. For example, fasts and vigils, prayer and psalmody, almsgiving and hospitality are noble in themselves, but when they are done out of vainglory they are no longer noble.

“God searches the intention of everything that we do, whether we do it for him or for any other motive.

“When you hear the Scripture saying, ‘You will render to each one according to his works,’ know that God will reward good works but not those done apart from a right intention. For God’s judgment looks not on what is done but to the intention behind it.”

— Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love 2.35-37


Maximus on the beatitudes: Rightly naming the blessed

As evidenced by the last few posts, I’ve recently been doing some thinking with Maximus the Confessor. Thus far, I have concentrated my efforts of his work, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love. With even a prefatory reading of the text certain guiding themes soon emerge that drastically illuminate the shape of Maximus’ overall project. Much of the work could fall (roughly) into what we might term “ethics” (virtue, neighbor love, the right ordering of desire and action, etc.). It must be stated right away that such “ethical issues” do not exist categorically as such. For Maximus, they belong first and foremost to the order of charity and are therefore inseparable from questions of worship, participation in the divine life, contemplation, aesthetics, and mysticism. The movement of faith into action is very important for Maximus because it denotes a space in which humanity becomes enfolded into the charitable presence of God; in loving the neighbor, the Christian comes to know what love is and therefore encounters — albeit dimly at first — the one who is himself Love. “Many people have said much about love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the teacher of love [. . .] Therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since ‘God is Love.’ To him be glory forever” (4.100).

One theme that caught my attention is the question of intentionality. In caring for the neighbor, in serving the poor, in performing works of mercy, what do our intentions have to do with it so long as the job gets done, the hungry are fed, the sick are visited, the dead are buried, and so forth? Is not the internal disposition of the giver somewhat irrelevant to such situations? Ought we not rather focus our energy on a more “results-based” model of charity? My guess is that Maximus would find such questions unintelligible. Within his participatory ontology, actions are not measured by their results alone (or even primarily), but are always more appropriately understood in terms of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, righteousness or wickedness. In other words, the motivation and the reason have everything to do with what constitutes a just and commendable performance of charity. For “God searches the intention of everything that we do, whether we do it for him or for any other motive” (2.36).

Maximus explores this theme of intentionality most clearly through his suggestive interpretation of the beatitudes. The text reads as follows:

“The world has many poor in spirit, but not in the right way; and many who mourn, but over money matters and loss of children; and many who are meek, but in the face of impure passions; and many who hunger and thirst, but to rob another’s goods and to profit unjustly. And there are many who are merciful, but to the body and to its comforts; and clean of heart, but out of vanity; and peacemakers, but who subject the soul to the flesh; and many who suffer persecution, but because they are disorderly; many who are reproached, but for shameful sins. Instead, only those are blessed who do and suffer these things for Christ and following his example. For what reason? ‘Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ and ‘they shall see God,’ and so forth. So that it is not because they do and suffer these things that they are blessed (since those just mentioned do the same), but because they do and suffer them for Christ and following his example.

“In everything that we do God looks at the intention, as has frequently been said, whether we do it for him or for any other motive. Therefore when we wish to do something good, let us not have human applause in view but rather God, so that always looking to him we might do everything on his account; otherwise we shall undergo the labor and still lose the reward” (3.47-48).

This analysis has interesting implications for our current understanding of charity and mercy. Ultimately, the basic point being communicated is the fundamental biblical principle that we are to serve Christ in each of these actions; that these practices are gifts consecrated through the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit and offered back unto the Father in thanksgiving (Colossians 3.17). Of course, such a perspective also lends itself to distortions, corruptions, and perversions. When our free response of charity and mercy is reduced to juridical confines of a duty, moral obligation, or law, we then risk suffocating the reciprocal bond of this agapeic relationality. As Ivan Illich argues, when we attempt rigidly control this intentionality, “There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.”

While this is a danger (and one the church has again and again fallen into), nonetheless I think it is a perversion (rather than a description) of the vision Maximus is offering here. When Christ is the ultimate end of our actions, our charity, our loving kindness, that does not mean that these things are no longer directed to the recepient of the gift. Quite the contrary. Faithful performances of such gifts are made all the more meaningful the deeper they participate in the life of God, which is to say the deeper they pattern themselves after the likeness of the Son.

“The one who loves Christ thoroughly imitates him as much as he can. Thus Christ did not cease to do good to men. Treated ungratefully and blasphemed, he was patient; beaten and put to death by them, he endured, not thinking ill of anyone at all. These three are the works of love of neighbor in the absence of which a person who says he loves Christ or possesses his kingdom deceives himself. For he says, ‘Not the one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father.’ And again, ‘The one who loves me will keep my commandments,’ and so forth” (4.55).