Jesus On Publicity and Public Virtue
We live in the great age of endless self-promotion. Anyone can ego-cast through the Internet by projecting images, talking points, endorsements, slogans, memes, pseudo-events, and more. But what is genuine virtue, and how should it be manifested in public? Followers of Jesus must seek out another way that avoids the dangers of image manipulation and various forms of puffing oneself up before the masses.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount charts another path for his followers. After he sees the crowds who are following him, he sits down to kindly teach them what the world would never forget: the beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:3-12).
These God-bestowed blessings are countercultural, but they define Christian virtue. I commend to you John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, to elucidate these profound teachings, but suffice to note that the God-blessed life in Christ is one of God-focused gentleness, humility, and good works, even to the point of experiencing blessing in persecution for following the way of blessings. This way of life ensures blessings that move far beyond this present age, extending into the age to come in which the meek will inherit the earth and all who mourn before God will be comforted.
Jesus goes on to teach that this pattern of existence has public implications. Individuals can experience the divine endorsement as they follow Christ in meekness, mourning, peacemaking and more, but these spill over into the marketplace, the highway, the school, on capitol hill, and everywhere.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).
Blessed people are salt (seasoning and preserving society) and light (exposing darkness and giving a medium for sight). Their virtue is to be public. This is holy publicity based on public virtue, not worldly publicity based on clever advertising. Virtuous influence is based on godly character and not on worldly celebrity—being “well known for their well knowness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it in The Image (1961).
Paradoxically, not trumpeting your virtue leads to godly influence through the discipline of secrecy. Later in the sermon, Jesus says:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others 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 others. Truly I tell you, 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).
We ought not seek our reward through the attention we receive by doing good works. God knows our hearts and our acts and will respond accordingly, with or without the attention of the world. Our good lives and good deeds come through being people of the beatitudes. There is no need to announce it with trumpets or through the internet or to seek the honor given by others. If we do, we forfeit the way of Jesus and any true effectiveness we might achieved.
God wants the kind of publicity that comes when his people submit to his rule, are filled with his Spirit, and obey his Word. Public virtue comes from private devotion and the discipline of secrecy. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by seeing the crowds who came to him. This perfectly holy man drew many people to himself through nothing but his virtue. We should do the same in his holy power.
Letting others know how you can serve them is apt. Reporting on how God is using your gifts is fine. Selling yourself is neither. Let us follow Jesus.