Now we are being told that too much praise is not good for us. But what is too much? Perhaps it would be better to say that the wrong kind of praise, on the wrong occasions, is not good. Yet now do we praise in the right manner on the right occasions? We can be specific about when it is wrong to praise someone: when they are doing something that is contrary to their own good or the good of others. There are many occasions, however, when neither praise, nor blame is appropriate. Should we praise the plumber who comes to fix a leak? A teacher who delivers a lesson? On the one hand they are only doing what is expected of them. On the other hand there are times when praise is not inappropriate. All this depends upon circumstance. There are no hard and fast rules, and on each occasion we have to make a judgement.
In the case of a teacher or a plumber there is a measure for praise or blame based upon what being a good teacher or a good plumber is. Yet there is something more fundamental to us, more fundamental to our praise and blame, than our profession. There are times when we say, ‘she was not the best teacher, but she was a wonderful person.’ What makes her wonderful? What a truly wonderful person does is to hold us in their love. This is the most wonderful thing in life, yet it can also be painful. For it highlights the love that we lack: through our own fault or the fault of others.
If we lack love then praise and blame become either empty or destructive. How do we know when to praise or to blame? When we learn how to love. How do we learn to love? When we learn how to be loved. How do we learn how to be loved? When someone loves us.
Here we seem to be stuck. If we are not loved then we cannot learn now to love. Praise and blame become either meaningless for us, or merely tools to be used in the manipulation of others. Our self-image swings violently between an exaggerated sense of self importance, and despair in our worthlessness. When a good person looks at us in love we see either an opportunity to manipulate their goodness, or a threat to our freedom. We reject the one thing which can bring us healing, and in rejecting it we plunge ourselves deeper and deeper into the despair of a life lived without love. We damage ourselves, and also those around us.
Where are we to find a remedy for this destructive cycle of manipulation and fear? As we enter Lent we are in today’s Gospel offered three remedies: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. In each case Jesus stresses that we must not act in order to receive praise from others. All must be done in secret, such that, ‘your father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’ These three remedies can only work if they are removed completely from the game of manipulation and fear. For it is only then that we can allow God to open our hearts to His love; to learn how to be loved and how to love. Almsgiving teaches us generosity of spirit, that each of us has a potential for giving greater than we can imagine, because we are given eternally in love through the love of the Father for His Son, returned in the Holy Spirit. Prayer teaches us that we are invited into this relationship of love which is God. Fasting teaches us how to let go of the things which we place in the way of this invitation to love. These are the remedies which Jesus Christ gives to us, but how can we open our hearts to these remedies when they are closed? The answer is that He has done this on our behalf. The hidden place He invites us into is the cross. In His sufferings for each of us upon the cross he holds each one of us in His love. All we have to do is to allow Him to love us, to share in the remedy through which He has healed our broken love. As He heals us there is praise and blame, but all this is now seen in the light of His love, His holding us upon the cross in the eternal love between Father and Son.