I saw a sign recently that said, “Any activity that begins with the words, ‘Hey, watch this!’ is forbidden.” Most of us like to be noticed and appreciated. We want people to be impressed – we want them to go “Wow, you’re really something!” I hate to say it, but there’s a little bit of that in most of our spiritual lives as well.
We all have something in common here this morning. To some degree, everyone of us desires to be God’s man or woman. Some of us are all in, sold out, giving it everything we’ve got – others are flirting around the edges – most of us are somewhere in between. Even with all of our shortcomings, we all strive try to be what God wants. And that’s a pretty tall order for most of us. So, when we hear Jesus say in Mt. 5:20, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” it’s a little like being told you have to play tennis like Roger Federer or golf like Tiger Woods – you get the idea – the Pharisees were the religious pros. So to be told you have to be better than them to get to heaven – it’s demoralizing, it’s unrealistic, it’s asking too much.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He looks at the righteousness of these “professionals” through a new set of glasses. He helps us to see that righteousness is more than just the external conformity to a set of regulations. In the final verses of Matthew 5, Jesus confronts how the teachers of the law taught portions of God’s law and will – again and again we hear that phrase: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” In that section, he taught that “greater righteousness” in terms of the heart, in terms of relationships.
Then, beginning with Matthew 6, Jesus turns to the “righteousness” of the Pharisees – these who had positioned themselves as righteousness personified. And in that context, he turns to tell us about that “greater righteousness” in our relationship with God. He focuses on three common elements of a person’s spiritual life –giving, prayer and fasting. He calls these “acts of righteousness.”
Mt. 6:1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
When the Pharisees wanted to take measure of a man’s spiritual devotion to God, they would focus on what he did – what was the evidence of his righteousness?
When Jesus said to “be careful,” he was talking to you and me – and he was reminding us how easy it is to follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees. He wasn’t saying to avoid these activities. But what he is saying is to watch carefully the attitudes with which we perform them.
It is so easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons.
Even motives that begin purely and innocently, Satan has a way of twisting and corrupting.
When these good activities – giving, praying, fasting – are done to be seen by men, they become simply a way to spiritually show off. Jesus uses a word over and over, not only here, but throughout the Gospels when he refers to their self-righteous motivation – “hypocrites.”
· The word for hypocrite had its roots in the theater.
· It comes directly from the Gk word used to describe an actor on a stage wearing a mask, who is performing for an audience. He is one who puts on a show, pretending to be something he isn’t.
Now, when you call a man a hypocrite, you’re begging for a fight. It’s the worst kind of insult. None of us like being called a hypocrite. It impugns our motives, it’s being called a liar.
There is a second recurring refrain in these verses: “they have received their reward in full.” The actor receives his pay from his audience. We love a good actor – we’ll pay good money to go back again and again to see an actor play the same role over and over – Who doesn’t love to see Clint Eastwood snarl and make some wisecrack (“make my day” or “do you feel lucky, do you?”) or the latest 007 say “Bond, James Bond.” A good actor knows what his audience wants and who buys his tickets. When we put on the face of an actor – play “the hypocrite” we soon learn what it is that people want to see and we subtly adapt ourselves to play that role. We’re convinced that if they really knew us without the mask they wouldn’t like us anymore.
There is a haunting finality to these words. If by your actions you seek the attention and admiration of people, you really rob yourself of the blessings God has to give. The point is that God does not reward those who desire to be people pleasers. Every activity should be done with one audience – God; and with one purpose – to please him and bring glory to his name. Paul writes in Col. 3:17, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Let’s look carefully then as Jesus challenges us to honor God, not only with our actions, but with a pure heart and right motives:
“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 men. I tell you the truth, 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.” (Mt. 6:2-4)
The construction of the sentence assumes giving is a part of the Christian’s life – it’s not whether, but when you give…. But the context is larger than what you put in the plate on Sunday morning (though not excluding it) – it reaches into every circumstance of life where we have opportunity to meet the needs of others. It fits under that larger call to compassionately treat others with mercy, to imitate God in his generosity toward us.
Most people think of giving as an external act, something important, but unconnected with our own personal relationship with God. It is writing a check – a line item on your budget – you do it as a matter of habit, but not necessarily as a matter of the heart. Jesus saw it as something integrally connected to that inner life. It really emulates the nature of God who gives compassionately and generously. Would that describe your giving?
When Jesus said, “Do not announce it with trumpets,”
there is no historical evidence that they actually used trumpets to announce alms giving, but we all know people who don’t really need a trumpet to toot their own horn. Jesus is painting a picture here of someone who is performing for others – in this case with their money – so that they will be admired and applauded. If you give enough money, they announce your name at the annual fundraising banquet, if give a whole lot of money, they name a building after you.
Thus, the reward of human praise is the ultimate objective. Honoring God or helping others is secondary, and ultimately irrelevant to the giving.
It’s interesting that later, when Jesus contrasts this arrogant show of piety, he selects a woman – a poor widow who brings two mites – all she has. And Jesus praises her true generosity when he says, she gave more than all the others.
So, he says, when you give to the needy do it in secret. There should be an anonymity to our giving that eliminates the temptation to parade before others.
I would caution us that many use this charge to anonymity to avoid giving and to hide the fact that we don’t give and so excuse ourselves. This is also a subtle form of pride, because again, what we fear is not God’s knowledge of what we give, but whether other people will think less of us.
Still others hear what Jesus says about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing and use that as an excuse for arbitrary and haphazard giving. Giving that honors God should be intentional and sacrificial. Our giving must be in secret, but the secret is between you and God.
Next, Jesus addresses our prayer life:
“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 men. I tell you the truth, 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. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt. 6:5-8)
In the arena of prayer, there is again a danger of using something very good and necessary simply as an opportunity to parade your piety (or more correctly, the appearance of piety) before other people. You see, the fact is, authentic piety or devotion to God has no need or desire to be recognized by others.
Again, in a parallel fashion to what he said about giving, Jesus commands his listeners not to be like the hypocrites and pray for an audience, but to “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.”
Jesus isn’t condemning public prayer, nor are we to hide the fact that we pray (Daniel threw open the shutters so everyone would know he was praying). But we must be keenly watchful over the reasons we pray and whom we are praying to. (Never forget the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who both went to the Temple to pray. Jesus said the Pharisee stood and prayed “thus with himself.” And again, when Jesus contrasts this pious show of prayer, he chooses a man who has no pretension of holiness – the very opposite. He comes beating his chest saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”
I think there is an implicit condemnation of some of the weaknesses of our public prayers.
· Lengthy prayers to show our great spirituality
· Fancy words to show our great wisdom
· Meaningless repetitions that betray the fact that we don’t have a real relationship with the Father.
· That also doesn’t excuse the ill-prepared, thoughtless prayers we launch that show how little we think of prayer.
When we so formalize our prayer that it ceases to be our personal communication with a Father we know intimately, there is something seriously wrong.
Before we move on, if it’s okay with you, I want to save vss. 9-15 for next week and look very specifically at how Jesus instructs his disciples to pray. So let’s skip down to verse 16 as Jesus confronts this third act of righteousness upon which the Pharisees hung their reputations:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men 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.” (Mt. 6:16-18)
Let’s dispel a couple of false notions about fasting. Fasting was a very important part of Jewish devotion to God. But, it was also a vital part of the devotional life of the early Christians. It is mentioned 26 times in the NT – always with the assumption that it is something that Christians naturally do as a part of their personal devotional lives and which churches do as a part of their life together as the body of Christ.
· Fasting was a vital part of the life of Jesus.
· Fasting was practiced to show repentance and sorrow before God for one’s sin.
· It was also used to focus one’s attention on one’s relationship with God or on some task to be performed for God.
As in both of the previous examples of giving and praying, when fasting is done for the purpose of gaining the attention and admiration of others, it loses its spiritual value.
Jesus says, “Do not look somber, don’t disfigure your faces to show you are fasting – as the hypocrites do.” And again, “they have received their reward in full.”
Characteristic of fasting was the mood of grieving and mourning – they would put on rough clothing called sackcloth. They would put ashes on their heads and go around looking miserable – so that people would ask, “what’s wrong with you?” And they could reply, “Oh, nothing, I’ve just been fasting for God.” Instead, Jesus says, “put oil on your head, wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting.” In modern terms that would mean, take a shower, look normal, don’t call attention to yourself.
Again, fasting was and should be a part of a Christian’s devotional life. Fasting is important – it is an important part of a Christian’s personal devotion to God, but it should be done only in the context of one’s relationship with God, not in order to display how spiritual you are to others.
One thing I noticed in these verses was how often Jesus contrasted the rewards of this world with the rewards given by the Father.
Whatever we do is done in God’s presence and for his benefit. Whenever we use our personal devotion to demonstrate our spirituality to others, we have lost the spiritual value of it. As Jesus says, the admiration and the applause of others is all the reward we will receive. It is a poor substitute for what the Father has in store.
We should remember that these “acts of righteousness” never bring righteousness in and of themselves. They are merely the expressions of an inward righteousness – not a righteousness of our own, but a righteousness imparted by God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Out of who we become in Jesus these expressions of our inward life flow – devotion, humility, submission, sacrifice, generosity, grace.
I think of the rewards we are promised as we do these things, not only in the right way, but with the right motives. God blesses our lives in tremendous ways.
There comes to be, in fact, a holiness about our lives. Not a self-proclaimed holiness, but a real holiness. A true sense of being chosen and set apart for God’s own use.
Words like hope and faithfulness, like righteousness and purity, the joy of living day in and day out in God’s presence become more than just religious talk. They are woven into our lives. Heaven becomes real, because it is where we have staked our lives.
When Jesus talks about rewards, he’s not just talking about some future blessing – it’s not just heaven we have to look forward to. The rewards he has in mind are not only in the future, but here and now, as God takes hold of our lives and pours the rich blessings of his love into them. Again, as we noted last week in Paul’s words, we are being “transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”