Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

-Matthew 6:1-4

I went to boarding school for 10th-12th grade. The school was in a small New England city. Through the middle of campus, a somewhat busy road divided the north and south sides of the school, with two painted crosswalks offering connection. As the north side of campus included all the classroom buildings and the south side included the library, the gym, and the larger dining hall, with dorms on both sides, the crosswalks were important. At the beginning and end of the day especially, hundreds of students and staff would need to cross the street about the same time as local residents were going to or from work.

Naturally, this created some congestion. Nearly all the drivers of the town were used to watching for pedestrians, especially near the school, so they would dutifully stop whenever they saw someone in or near the crosswalk. In polite recognition of the drivers’ attention, students and staff alike would wave at whatever driver happened to be first in the line of cars. Even if fifty people all crossed the street at the same time, each one would wave. 

This was such an ingrained part of the school culture that it was part of the new student orientation. The principal of the school would stand up and tell everyone that gratitude is necessary, and that waving at cars who stopped at the crosswalk was one way to show it. He even promised that if he ever failed to wave at a car, he would buy the entire student body ice cream. Some students made it their mission to catch him failing to wave, but he was consistent. He always waved.

One day, the rumbles of a rumor began to spread– someone had caught the principal failing to wave, and ice cream was coming. Then the whole story came out: the volleyball team had been traveling to a tournament in a larger city nearby. As their bus pulled up to an intersection, they spotted the principal crossing right ahead of them– and he didn’t wave. When they saw him later at the tournament, they confronted him about it. He tried to argue that the waving policy only applied on campus. Did courtesy and gratitude only matter at school, and not in other parts of life, the team asked?

The next Sunday night, there was a freezer full of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bars in the dining hall.

After all, the principal could hardly tell students that gratitude, courtesy, and simple acts of kindness only mattered for students, or only at school, or only when you knew somebody was watching. Doing what is right is, well, right, whether or not anybody else knows it.

This is true for us, too. The best way we treat anybody is the way we should treat everybody. The best way we behave anywhere is the way we should act everywhere. The best way we follow Jesus anytime is the way we should follow Jesus all the time.

Sometimes we slip up, just like my principal did when he thought no one was paying attention. Hopefully, when that happens, we have people like the volleyball team to hold us accountable and remind us how we can be at our best. And hopefully we can be as gracious as my principal in admitting our wrongdoing and following through with the consequences. (He bought a thousand students Ben & Jerry’s!)

Let’s be disciples who live as righteously when no one is watching as when we’re center stage. And your heavenly Father will see, and smile.