Low Key

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18

Title: Low Key


  • Introduction
  • Do your acts of righteousness in a low key way
  • Conclusion



Over the past several weeks we have been looking at various aspects of Kiwi culture in light of the gospel.

  • We have considered the tendency New Zealanders have to ‘go hard’ and we have touched on our inclination for justice, generosity and freedom.
  • Last week we took a look at Kiwi ingenuity & the Do It Yourself attitude
  • Another facet of NZ culture is what we might call being low key

Low key means being real (not pretending)

  • It means we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves
  • We don’t enjoy the lime light or a lot of fuss
  • We are not ostentatious or flashy

It is interesting that one of our national icons is the kiwi

  • Kiwi birds are the epitome of low key
  • They are mostly nocturnal birds – which live in borrows in the ground during the day
  • You hardly ever see them but you sometimes hear them at night
  • The life of a kiwi is secretive – solitary
  • They are flightless birds – their feet are always on the ground – humble
  • Interestingly, kiwis mate for life – so they are loyal

One of the things that often goes with being low key is the tendency to keep to ourselves – we are private and not always that social

  • This is sometimes mistaken for rudeness

Being low key also comes with a lack of patience for ceremony

  • We are uncomfortable with giving and receiving praise
  • You see this in TV interviews with NZ sports players after games
  • When the man of the match is congratulated for their performance they automatically talk about how well the rest of the team performed
  • We don’t like to stand out – we prefer just to get on with it thanks

So let’s get on with it then

  • Our reading today comes from Matthew chapter 6
  • I will be reading from the New International Version which will appear on the wall if you want to follow it
  • This reading covers the first six verses of Matthew 6 and then jumps to verses 16-18
  • Here Jesus is speaking to his disciples and seems to be advocating a low key approach to prayer, fasting and giving to the needy
  • From Matthew 6, verse 1 we read…

“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 honoured 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. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading and our culture

Do your acts of righteousness in a low key way:

Aesop has a fable called the Dog and his Shadow – it goes like this…

A dog was given a fine meaty bone by a friendly neighbour

  • On his way home, with the bone firmly between his teeth, the animal had to cross a bridge over a narrow stream
  • When he reached the middle of the bridge the dog paused to look into the water and saw his own reflection magnified
  • Thinking the other dog had a larger bone he decided to take it by force
  • He leaned over and snapped at the reflection
  • As he did so, the bone between his teeth fell into the stream and was lost [1]

Matthew 6 verse 1 begins with Jesus saying…

  • 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.

In some ways those who practice their righteousness in front of others (to make themselves look good) are like the dog which snapped at his own reflection and lost the reward of the meaty bone

  • They have forfeited something real for something fleeting, a mere illusion

We find the word ‘reward’ 7 times on Jesus’ lips in these verses – so the idea of being rewarded is important in this context

  • Jesus wants to encourage acts of righteousness but he doesn’t want people to be too calculating in performing their good deeds
  • He wants our actions to come from a right motivation
  • By saying that God will reward us for the good we do in secret Jesus is affirming that God is just
  • And he is setting us free to do the right thing without having to worry about compensating ourselves too much

Jesus doesn’t say exactly what the reward will be

  • If we look at the beginning of Matthew 5 though we get a few clues
  • For example, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.’
  • Those who do good in secret are the pure in heart
  • Theirs is not a cash reward – nor is it a popularity prize
  • It is the unquantifiable reward of seeing God

Having made his point generally, Jesus then goes on to illustrate specifically what he means by reference to giving, praying and fasting

With each of these three acts of righteousness Jesus advises a low key approach

  • Being real and not pretending


When you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets…

  • Instead do it in a quiet, private way
  • Not only is this better for you – it’s also better for the recipients who are saved from any embarrassment or obligation

Likewise, when you pray don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men

  • Rather pray because you love to be in conversation with God

John Ortberg tells a personal story

  • Many years ago he wanted to learn how to pray so he got involved in an Ignatian prayer group. John writes…

We made a commitment, and we prayed each day and then gathered every week to learn. One of the men in the group came in one day and said, “I have now prayed 32 days in a row”. …Our leader, Sister Jean, replied, “Tomorrow, don’t pray.” Sister Jean recognised that inside him was a spirit of self-righteous judgment: “I’ve got my spiritual life in order, so why can’t you do that? …It was destroying the fruit of the Spirit in him.  [2]

Now it’s important to understand that Jesus is not forbidding all public prayer

  • It is okay to pray in public – Jesus himself did this on occasion
  • When he fed the 5000 – Jesus gave thanks to God for the loaves & fishes
  • And on the cross Jesus famously cried out to the Lord Almighty saying…
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • What is forbidden is praying in public to make ourselves look good
  • Prayer is a sacred thing and God doesn’t like it when we use holy things for unholy purposes, like self-promotion or self-righteousness

Fasting is the third thing Jesus says we should do in a low key way, without looking somber or drawing attention to ourselves

  • Not only are we likely to get more out of the fast if we keep it quiet but the people around us won’t feel unnecessarily guilty for eating

In all three examples Jesus refers to those who ‘blow their own trumpet’ as hypocrites

  • In the original context a ‘hypocrite’ was an ‘actor’
  • Someone in a theatre who pretended to be someone else
  • These days the word ‘hypocrite’ has evolved to mean something more than just an actor
  • A hypocrite, in contemporary usage, describes someone who lives by a double standard

The point is, don’t just pretend to do the right thing – actually do the right thing

  • Don’t put on a show, like an actor – be low key
  • The thing that makes a deed truly righteous is the absence of deceit
  • And deceit cannot survive without an audience
  • So do your good deeds in private, like the kiwi which is seldom seen

Jane Austin’s book ‘Pride & Prejudice’ provides the classic example…

  • On the one hand we have people (like Mr Wickham) who only pretend to do the right thing in public
  • Then, by contrast, we have others (like Mr Darcy) who actually do the right thing in private, but are misunderstood in public…

Mr Darcy (played by Colin Firth) has saved the Bennett family from public disgrace at great cost to himself

  • But he has done it in a low key way so the family don’t know it was him
  • Miss Elizabeth Bennett finds out though and in the scene we just saw she thanks Darcy on behalf of her family, who don’t know to whom they are indebted – And Mr Darcy replies…
  • “If you will thank me, let it be for yourself alone. Your family owe me nothing. As much as I respect them I believe I thought only of you.”
  • Mr Darcy helped the Bennett family because of his love for Elizabeth
  • He didn’t do it to make himself look good or to win the praise of others
  • He didn’t even do it to win Miss Bennett’s praise – he did not intend for her to find out
  • He simply did it because he cared about her well-being and did not want her suffer shame

Jesus calls us to a pretty high ideal – In helping others the attitude we aim for is:

  • ‘They owe us nothing – as much as we respect them we were thinking only of God’

The motif of secrecy is an interesting one

  • When you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing
  • When you pray, go into your room by yourself
  • When you fast, don’t look somber…

On the face of things – this seems to go against what Jesus says in Matthew 5 about letting your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

  • Well, there is a difference between letting your light shine so that people will praise God in heaven…
  • And letting your light shine so they will praise you
  • If we do things so that people will praise us that’s not light – that’s just lame
  • But if we do good things so that others don’t know what we’ve done, then they won’t praise us – but they may praise God

It is sort a paradox – the kind of faith Jesus wants his disciples to have is the kind that can’t really be hidden, even though we might try to keep it a secret

  • Like Jesus said, ‘a city on a hill cannot be hid…’
  • So also, the light of true righteousness cannot be hid
  • How often did Jesus try to avoid the crowds?
  • How often did he say, ‘Don’t tell anyone what I have done for you’?
  • And yet the crowds found him & his righteous deeds were found out also

As Dallas Willard says…

  • “Secrecy rightly practised enables us to place our public relations department entirely in the hands of God, who lit our candles so we could be the light of the world… We allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed.” [3]

At first Mr Darcy’s light is hidden – but in the end, when Miss Elizabeth Bennett discovers how he has saved their family from disgrace, the light of Mr Darcy’s love for her cannot be hidden

  • Mr Darcy did not blow his own trumpet – he placed his public relations department in the hands of God and Miss Elizabeth saw the light

Something else which is a little hidden in the text is the idea of solitude

  • Praying in your room with the door closed implies solitude – choosing to be alone
  • Solitude has the potential to free us from the opinion of others and from the ungodly influences of the crowd

Scientists have found it takes 20 times more amphetamine to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups [4]

  • Experimenters have also found that a mouse given no amphetamine at all will be dead within 10 minutes of being placed in the midst of a group of mice who are on the drug
  • That’s how much the group is able to influence the individual
  • In some ways our conformity to social patterns (as human beings) is similar to that of mice
  • We too are easily influenced by the wider social group we are a part of
  • You only need to spend an evening at the stadium to see this in reality

In solitude we find the distance from the group that we need in order to keep our perspective and hold on to our values

Last week we explored the miracle of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 in John 6

  • In that sermon I talked about how Jesus worked in community with others, not in isolation
  • Jesus involved God in the multiplication of the bread and fish
  • And he involved his disciples in the distribution of the food to the crowd

But an interesting thing happens at the end of John’s account of this event

  • The crowd try to make Jesus king by force and so Jesus goes off into the hills by himself
  • He seeks solitude with God, away from the crowd, because he doesn’t want to be influenced (or misled) by the group
  • On that occasion he needed to separate himself from people in order to maintain God’s perspective

Jesus sought solitude on other occasions too

  • Just before beginning his public ministry
  • Then again after John the Baptist was killed
  • As well as the night before his own crucifixion

If Jesus needed solitude to maintain his perspective and strengthen his resolve how much more do we need it?

  • Having said that, I don’t mean to give you a glorified idea of solitude
  • It’s not all peaches and cream – solitude can be a difficult thing

As Louis Bouyer notes…

  • “Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us… [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.” [5]

In other words – solitude strips us of illusion, it enables us to see our own emptiness apart from God and this truth is frightening to us

  • Solitude shows us we can’t face the abyss on our own – we need Jesus

Ideally, solitude enables us to return to society as free persons [6]

  • Free in the sense that we are less affected by the opinions of others and less susceptible to being misled by the crowd
  • However it will only have this affect with the help of God’s Spirit
  • Without the Spirit of Christ it could undo you


Giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, solitude and secrecy – these are all what we might call ‘spiritual disciplines’

  • Someone once described a spiritual discipline as something which disrupts the normal patterns of thought and feelings that flow through us so that other thoughts and feelings have a chance [7]
  • In other words, spiritual disciplines break bad habits and enable change & growth to occur

Dallas Willard talks about disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement

Giving to those in need, is a discipline of engagement – it is about doing something

  • Maybe giving money to a just cause or giving time by serving someone in a practical way or advocating for the oppressed

By contrast, fasting is a discipline of abstinence – it is about not doing something

  • Not eating or drinking, not talking, not watching TV, not spending time with other people, not having sex, not being in a hurry

Prayer could be either engagement or abstinence [8]

  • When we pray with or for others that is engagement
  • But when prayer is listening to God in silence, it is really a form of abstinence

Sometimes Jesus engaged with the crowds and other times he abstained by withdrawing to seek time alone with God or with his disciples

Sometimes we need to engage and sometimes we need to abstain

For example, if you lack joy in your life then the discipline of celebration might be helpful to you – in other words, going to a party [9]

  • We don’t ordinarily think of celebration as a spiritual discipline but actually God prescribes it in the Old Testament
  • In Deuteronomy 14 the people were commanded to set aside a 10th of their produce for a party before the Lord [10]
  • Why? – To make room for joy in their lives

Maybe we need to make more room for joy in our lives by having one day a week when we eat the foods we enjoy eating, listen to the music we enjoy listening to, do the things we enjoy doing, hang out with the people we enjoy spending time with

Or maybe you have too much partying in your life, too much activity, too much engagement

  • In that case you might be better to practice one of the abstinence disciplines
  • So if you have a problem with gossip you take a day each week to be in complete silence – not listening or speaking to anyone
  • Or if you have a problem with pornography then you could try fasting from eating food for 24 hours every couple of weeks (or at least refrain from eating between meals)
  • The discipline of not eating will strengthen your resolve to resist other temptations and it will weaken your libido at the same time
  • Or if you are always in a hurry then, for a month, try driving in the slow lane on the motorway, or choose the longest queue in the supermarket [11]
  • It may be frustrating at first but it might also slow you down on the inside if you stick at it long enough


Or perhaps you have a compulsion to always come to other people’s rescue alongside a disregard for taking care of yourself

  • Maybe you need to go away on holiday – take a break from rescuing people – have some faith in others, let them stand on their own feet
  • Realise that the meaning of your existence does not depend on you saving others – it depends on God


Whatever spiritual disciplines (or acts of righteousness) you might practice – just do it in a low key way – be real, without pretending

  • Keeping things low key makes us more pleasant to be around and a better advertisement for Christ

One last little thing to note from this Scripture passage…

  • Twice Jesus says that God your Father ‘is unseen
  • You can’t get more low key than that

Let us pray…

[1] As retold by William White in his book, ‘Stories for Telling’, pages 110-111.

[2] John Ortberg, in the book, ‘Living in Christ’s Presence’, page 149.

[3] Dallas Willard, ‘Spirit of the Disciplines’, page 173.

[4] This illustration comes from Dallas Willard’s book, ‘Spirit of the Disciplines’, pages 160-161.

[5] Louis Bouyer’s quote is cited in Dallas Willard’s book, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’, page 161.

[6] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’, page 161.

[7] John Ortberg, from the book, ‘Living in Christ’s Presence’, page 145.

[8] Dallas Willard puts prayer in the ‘engagement’ category – I see it as either engagement or abstinence depending on the kind of prayer that is in view.

[9] Richard Foster talks about the discipline of celebration in his book, ‘Celebration of Discipline’

[10] Deuteronomy 14:22-27

[11] John Ortberg uses these 4 examples (relating to joy, gossip, fasting & hurry sickness) in the book, ‘Living in Christ’s Presence’, pages 144-146.