Historical Cultural Context
Secrecy and Openness
For all practical purposes, there was no privacy in ancient village life. Everyone minded everybody else’s business. Crowds followed Jesus even when he sought out deserted places (Matt 14:13).
Village children were trained to spy out the secrets of other families while keeping the secrets of their own families intact.
The common suspicion in this society is that if one does not know what others are up to, they must be up to no good. They surely must be plotting something that would damage everyone in the village.
Jesus chided his disciples for trying to keep the children away from him (Matt 19:13-15) because he didn’t want to create the impression that he was trying to hide something.
Given the prevalence of secrecy and deception in this society, how could one ever know when to believe another person?
People resorted to various strategies to persuade others that they were indeed telling the truth. One strategy was to call God as witness.
Ruth seeks to assure her mother-in-law, Naomi, that she truly intends to remain with her rather than return to her family by saying: “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:17).
The fact that one of the commandments prohibits summoning God to witness a lie (“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God …”; Ex 20:7) suggests that even oaths did not guarantee that truth was being told.
Today’s Gospel is good news indeed: God the patron will uncover everything that is covered and will reveal all secrets (10:26). To enjoy these benefits, one had best acknowledge publicly that Jesus is God’s favored broker (10:32).
God Given Honor
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (6:1-18), Jesus criticized the Pharisees who drew attention to their fasting, almsgiving, and praying in order to be seen by others and thereby to win honor from the crowds.
Although the Pharisees behaved in culturally acceptable fashion, Jesus urges his disciple to do these same good deeds “in secret” (Matt 6:1-18).
With this advice, Jesus redefines honor, his culture’s core value. Honor is a public claim to worth and a public acknowledgment of that claim. The Pharisaic almsgiving, prayer, and fasting behavior is normal and expected.
Jesus teaches rather that honor bestowed by God is far superior to that which humans give. Do good deeds to win honor from God rather than from human beings!
Here is yet another example where Jesus’ teaching is counter-structural rather than counter-cultural. He doesn’t discard honor, which would be a counter-cultural move. Rather he retains honor but redefines it by showing that God determines what is truly honorable.
Americans cherish their privacy. They sue tabloid newspapers that invade it. They are shocked when they learn of the existence of storehouses of information gathered without their knowledge and consent about their spending habits, their financial situations, and the like.
How would Americans respond to Jesus’ good news that all secrets will someday be revealed?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University