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Don't make a performance of your piety. God is the audience, not your fellowman, so you can stop acting.
"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do . . . . But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. . . .
"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to be fasting; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
Matthew 6:1-18 NKJV, condensed
Giving, Praying and Fasting
It is time to acknowledge that Jesus had a sense of humor, and this passage is a good example. One of the problems in understanding the Bible is that we are reading the words and not listening to them in their original, spoken form. We miss the nuances and signs of passion in tone and body language. We don't know the winks or the sparkle in the eye when people joked, or poked fun at each other. Obviously I think we are more serious than we need to be when reading a passage such as this one.
Jesus had just finished a long discussion on the Law and the Prophets. Now it was time to lighten up for a few minutes. Jesus had critical words to deliver, but he did it in a humorous way. When you do a good deed, don't hire a trumpeter to go before you and announce your deed! I believe people laughed when they heard that. Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing--just imagine what a comedian could do with that image! When you pray, don't stand at a busy intersection with a sign saying, "I'm praying." When you fast, don't go around looking dirty and miserable; instead wash up and pour on some oil of gladness! Yes, you have permission to smile at this, even chuckle.
In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made up some additional commandments of his own:
We'll save the last three for succeeding studies and start with the one about acting out our religious disciplines. We give to the less fortunate, we talk to God, we abstain from food or other pleasures in order to concentrate on spiritual matters--these are three familiar practices. They all reflect the risk of being empty. When we give, we empty our pockets or checkbook. When we pray, we empty some time and space to give attention to God. When we fast, we literally empty ourselves to become more sensitive to the fullness of God's presence.
Jesus is not recommending that we end these traditions. He is protesting the misguided and faulty thinking behind the deed. It's not the giving, praying or fasting that is wrong; the error is in the motivation and the temptation to deceive. Before sighing with relief that these words are for the rich and pompous, take another look. Jesus is speaking to us. Human nature has not changed all that much since Jesus' day. Religious disciplines are something like the commandments and can become no more than an external performance motivated by our desire to look good in the eyes of those we are trying to impress.
Humor is frequently used to make a serious point. And here it is: Don't let God catch you acting. Hypocrite means actor, one who wears a mask. A hypocrite is one who acts religious only when others are present to observe.
If we associate good deeds with the approval of those around us, they become our motivation. Friends and neighbors become the determining factor, and we depend upon them to get us moving in the right direction. That's where Jesus said, "Take heed." Because, when we rely on others to cheer us on through life, the temptation is to deceive. It's so easy. Take the shortcut. What does it matter! The mask goes on and we really look good.
Why perform deeds of kindness? So that people will think well of us? Or for sheer love of God? Jesus presented a choice. We can put on a performance and get accolades from our peers. Or we can live out our obedience to God with no outward show, and get praise and reward from our Father in heaven. What do you value more? The admiration of your peers or the approval of God?
Are the rewards of God able to compete with the applause of our fellowman? Jesus seems to be saying that God needs our attention in order to reward us, and that applause distracts us. It detracts from the greater joy of God's good pleasure. If you want to pray, go home. Shut the door and pray to your Father in heaven. We settle for crumbs when we could have a real feast!
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What good deed have you done for which you received public recognition or tokens of appreciation?
Note the similarities and the common thread in these three paragraphs of Jesus. What is seen? What is secret? What is rewarded? And by whom? Does Jesus mean I should be quiet about being a Christian? What does God want from us, according to these verses?
We routinely acknowledge and praise those who do honorable deeds. Why would Jesus warn against public recognition?
We need to use caution and not put undue emphasis on the right and wrong way to give, pray or fast. That would miss the mark and lead to unproductive tangents. The point is that God sees you give, pray and fast, and that's what really matters. Since God sees what you do in private, do you give God something good to look at? Are you comfortable with the thought that God sees your heart? Is your giving, praying and fasting real? Or is it acting?
Rank the love of God as a motivating factor in your life? If #1 were none, and #10 were 100%, what number indicates the influence of God's love in determining what you do? Is love of God a greater or lesser influence than the approval of your peers.
Read Matthew 5:16. It's the passage about letting our light shine for all to see. Why would Jesus make that statement, and then tell us to give to charity, and pray and fast in secret? Is your faith a private or public matter? What should be private about it? What should be public?
What do you like better--the momentary praise of those around you, or the promise which you must take by faith that God will reward you openly? What are the rewards of God? Are they tangible or intangible? Are God's rewards the same thing as blessings? Do God's rewards come in this life or in the next life?
Jesus died on a cross, which doesn't sound like a proper reward for a life well-lived. What do we learn about God's rewards from the cross?