20 Sep 2020
Passage Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
Speaker Chris Haley
Series Sermon on the Mount
‘The church is full of hypocrites!’ So goes the mantra of the world around us, and to some extent they’re right aren’t they? American Pastor Paul Washer recently said ‘“Some of you are mad about wearing a mask to church, but you've been doing it for years.” And he’s right isn’t he? It is so tempting to be a hypocrite in church. To pretend you’re someone you’re not, to put a mask on, and the more other people do it, the more tempting it is to do it yourself. It’s like an awful mask-wearing slippery slope, but as Jesus continues his sermon on the mount, he has a word of warning to the would-be hypocrite- three home truths for the hypocrite. That’s our first point: Three Home Truths for the Hypocrite, which we’ll follow with Three Practical Examples for Piety. Our first home truth though is:
Mere Performances of Piety Reap No Heavenly Reward v1
Jesus warns his hearers not to ‘practice their righteousness’ before other people in order to be seen by them. We said last time we were looking at the sermon on the mount that when the word righteousness is used in Matthew it’s more outward righteous acts rather than how Paul uses it in books like Romans- where it’s about our right standing before God, given to us freely by Jesus. For Paul it’s a legal word ‘Not guilty’, in Matthew it’s a practical word ‘acts holy’. The problem is that here ‘act’ seems to be important word. The language of the theatre is throughout this passage. The word hypocrite that appears in v5 originally meant an actor in a play. In Greek plays they would often wear a mask and that mask wearing became associated with pretending to be someone you’re not. The word there in v1 ‘to be seen’ is where we get our word theatre from! One translation translates it as ‘to be a spectacle’.
These people doing good things, but they’re doing them to be seen, to draw attention to themselves. It should be said though that the problem is not that they are doing these acts in public, but why they are doing them in public. They are doing them for the praise of men and not of God. Some acts of righteousness are unavoidably public. Jesus prayed publicly in synagogues and with his disciples. The prayer he’s going to teach them in the middle of this passage is in the plural: Our Father, give us today our daily bread, lead us not into temptation. It implies we’re going to pray this way in groups. The early disciples in Acts prayed in groups, and they fasted together, and they gave communally as churches.
The public part is not the problem. In fact it seems to be encouraged earlier in the sermon on the mount. "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:16 ESV. So what is it? Well I think the most helpful way to think about it is, as one commentator puts it “there is a world of difference between being seen to do good, and doing good to be seen” The problem is that on paper they could look quite similar. To observe it you might not be able to tell the difference. It’s a matter of motives, but motives matter! They can make the difference between a virtue and vice, a service and a sin. Here we see that’s it’s possible to turn good things, like prayer and giving to charity into bad things depending on our motives. It matters why we’re doing something, not just that we’re doing it. That means there could be people you know who are awful sinners and do you know how they show it? They pray, they give to charity, and they do good deeds! Jesus’ strongest criticisms, attacks even, we’re against this group, because although their actions were good, their hearts were rotten.
And brothers and sisters we are not immune! We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke here. It could be that you’ve been doing all the right things all your life for completely the wrong reasons and ended up worse than when you started off! We so easily deceive ourselves, with our motives. We’re always tempted to see our motives in the best light, even when we know they can’t always be, because we see those bad motives in others. So how can tell? How can we tell if we’re being hypocrites? Jesus shows us how. That’s the second home truth…
Secrecy Shows Sincerity, Hype Shows Hypocrisy
In all three examples Jesus gives he encourages us to do acts of righteousness secretly; to give in secret, to pray in secret, to fast in secret. Not because they are inherently better or more godly, praying at home is no more holy than praying in a prayer meeting, but because they tell us who we’re aiming to please, who our real audience is, so to speak. If what we care about is God’s approval, if He is our audience, then doing these things in private should be no problem. God sees- and that’s enough. Where the problem comes is when suddenly that’s not enough. There’s no private prayer. There are no acts of kindness we do that are unknown to others. When that is the case there should be alarm bells sounding! Red Alert, Red Alert! When all our piety is public, that points to the fact that our piety is a performance we do for the praise of people around us. Don Carson writes “The fundamental way to check out how sound we are in each of these areas is to perform these acts so quietly that none but God knows we are doing them. That is the fundamental check on whether we are hypocrites or not, do we do these things in private, as well as, or instead of doing them in public?
The other thing that alerts us to that truth is when we make hype around our acts of kindness. I’ll put my hands up I’m terrible at this when it comes to housework. Caroline cooks most nights, but when I cook, I somehow manage to mention to people that I’ve cooked, or when I’ve tidied up or vacuumed- I sort of expect it be acknowledged and get annoyed when it doesn’t. That’s the flip side of seeking the praise of people, it’s a problem when we get it- feeling proud, but it’s also a problem when we don’t- feeling let down. When we’ve done something good do we blow our own trumpet? Do we always, ‘happen’ to drop it into conversation? Do we always make sure someone acknowledges it? It could be a clue that you’re really after praise from people- and Jesus says if you get it- that’s all you’ll get. You’ve got what you asked for- the praise of people, what you haven’t got is anything from God. That’s not to say though that we should stop doing good. Our third home truth is…
Godward Good Works Reap Real Rewards
Jesus says if we don’t seek the praise of people, but the praise of God. If we do our good deeds in a way only God sees, that God will reward us. There is a real reward waiting. Now it’s not talking about getting to go to heaven, that is a gift that Jesus to us freely, without good works, without our own merit. Let me state categorically this is not teaching give, fast, and pray and you’ll go to heaven. Jesus spent his life rebuking people who thought that way. Salvation is a gift won by Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death and offered to anyone who will ‘repent and believe the good news’ as Jesus put it. Good works are the fruit, not the root of our salvation
The reward here then must be different (As always though it’s easier to say what it’s not than what it is!) I’ve done a lot of thinking this week and this is the conclusion I’ve come to: The reward is God’s glory and our joy, that is the yield of our pious actions here, the fruit of them as you could translate it.
It is God’s Glory because this is the outcome of all these actions. God is glorified when we give. His generosity to us in the Gospel, overflows into generosity to others- he is giver of all things and when we give back the things he has given us we acknowledge that He will provide. On top of that the glory more clearly goes to God when we don’t know what human hands he used to bless us. We cannot thank the giver when they are anonymous, we can only thank God. God is glorified when we pray. He is acknowledged as the all powerful answer of prayer. The giver of all good things that we need. God is not glorified when we ‘go it alone’, but when we go to Him with our needs. God is glorified as he provides what we need through answered prayer. God is glorified when we fast, because in fasting we acknowledge that God is all we need. We acknowledge that He is more precious to us than food. That he matters more to us than even the very stuff of life- our daily sustenance.
In all these things we get no glory, no praise, when we do them in secret- God gets it all! And that’s the way it should be. If we do works in public it should be so God gets the glory, that should be our motivation, but it should also be our motivation when we do things in private. What matters is that in all things God gets the glory.
But it’s not only God’s glory, but our joy too. We are rewarded, not only by knowing that the glory is going to God and not us, but in the enjoyment of the fruit of our labours. The hypocrites get what they want- the praise of people, these people get what they want- the reason they were doing the things in the first place! Which I can sum in one word: Joy.
The reward of giving is joyful blessing, both in receiving and giving. We receive cheerfully, and we are to give cheerfully. Jesus himself said it is more blessed to give than receive. The reward our prayer is answered prayer and ultimately our joy; Jesus says "Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full." John 16:24b ESV. The reward of fasting even is joy. It is abasing yourself you might be exalted. It is humbling yourself that God might lift your head. There are a dozen reasons to fast- but the end of them all ultimately is for our lasting joy. But God’s glory and our joy are not totally separate things, but that’s a whole other sermon! For now we just need to spend a few moments working out what this looks like in practice. Jesus gives us…
Three Practical Examples for Piety
The implication should be obvious: give in secret if you can. We do see public giving in the NT, but is fraught with danger. One of the most shocking incidents in the NT is in Acts 5 when a couple called Ananias and Saphira give publicly, but withhold part of their gift. God strikes them both down dead because they lied about their gift. They wanted to be seen as big donors, while having their cake and eating it by keeping some back. They epitomise the hypocrisy Jesus talks about here- and it literally costs them their lives. Jesus says, don’t let your left hand know what you’re right hand is doing. People have tried to read all sorts of things into this, but it’s supposed to be almost comical. Your giving should so stealthy that even the other parts of your body don’t know what have happened! Like you’re right hand is giving so secretly that your left hand even is unaware of what is happening!
It should be a million miles away from blowing a trumpet to announce your giving. Again people have tried to read all sorts into that phrase, but again it’s almost supposed to be comical. As though someone is walking around with a fanfare announcing their charitable donations. We laugh, but doesn’t the world almost get there? There are wings of buildings, indeed whole buildings named after their donors, statues put up in their honour outside the buildings- a problem many places are now facing as some of those donors were linked to slavery! People give giant cheques to charity- you see it every comic relief and children in need. I wonder what would Jesus say about that? Even the most popular way of giving, sponsorship, is not really secret giving. The person being sponsored gets the limelight- even though in most cases they have given little to the charity themselves. And even the actual givers now can have their names published on the giving page on the website alongside how much they’ve given. It’s great that so much is being raised for charity, but it’s not really the model of NT giving which should be stealthy and secret
I’m glad that as a church we don’t know who are mysterious benefactors are for the building. We’re not considering calling it the Mr Smith Centre, or the Mrs Jones Building. I’m glad that as a pastor, I don’t know who gives. And I’m glad we’ve got a treasurer who is so discreet about these things. Jesus wants us to give generously. He assumes we will give generously, but we are not to give glory-seekingly. All the glory should go to God. The second example he gives is prayer
Again from what we’ve seen the implications should be obvious: Pray in secret. Again we do see public prayer, from Jesus, Paul and the early disciples in the New Testament. A whole chapter of John’s Gospel is given over to a prayer that Jesus prayed in public. We’re told in Acts that the early church gathered to pray about things. It may not have been exactly what we think of as a prayer meeting, but I imagine it was not far off. What seems to be happening here is people standing in public praying on street corners, making a public show of it, stopping at certain times during the day to pray- no matter what they were doing! Showing off their supposed holiness to the world that prayer was so important to them they would stop in the street and do it!
But Jesus counsels us here to go find a room where no-one can see you and pray there. Then there is no danger of doing it for show. If the only time you pray is in public, you have a problem! No two ways about it. And I don’t just mean SOS prayer- the quick- save me/help me prayers we pray when we’re in trouble. What Jesus envisages here is serious time talking to God. I find this immensely challenging. Even as a pastor I can tell you that serious prayer is my most difficult work. It becomes pretty evident if I’m not spending time in the Word- you would have no sermon on Sunday for a start! But private prayer- Who would know? And that is why Jesus puts this here as a litmus test for us. When private prayer disappears it points to a breakdown in our relationship with God. Imagine if a man only talked to his wife in public! Would you call that a healthy relationship? Prayer is not the problem- the relationship is the problem!
Some try to counter this by not praying in public at all- ‘I don’t want to be a hypocrite’, but that’s not what Jesus is saying all. That would be like the husband never talking to his wife. It’s a step even further away! No Jesus says go to your room and pray. Find somewhere private and talk to you father. If you’re stuck in the prayer pits, can I counsel you- do what Jesus says! Find sometime today to get away from everything and just talk to God. You may need to ask your husband or wife to look after the kids, don’t worry about that, just do it. Find a quiet place, even just for 10 mins and talk to your father; ask Him for help to pray to Him, ask for a fresh start, ask for a heart that loves Him more. Don’t leave this for another time- there is never a convenient time to pray. We have to make time. Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.” This is important stuff we’re talking about here, this is our very Spiritual life. Lastly, final example…
Definitely the most controversial of the three examples! I have to confess, I’ve flipflopped over the years on the issue. It’s never commanded in the NT and yet we see examples of it all over the place. Jesus fasted in the wilderness, though notably his disciples didn’t. Anna the prophetess fasted in Luke 2. John the Baptist and his disciples fasted. The church in Antioch were fasting when God called them to set apart Barnabas and Paul. They fast again before sending them off. Paul and Barnabas fast as they commit elders to the Lord’s care on their mission trips- and they are just the ones we know about. After all if they were following his teaching Jesus’ point is that most of the time no-body should know!
But is fasting a NT practice? I want to say at this point, it can be- it depends. If you’re going to treat it like the Pharisees did, definitely not. If you’re going to use it as an aid to prayer and as a tangible sign of your repentance or devotion to God, then it can be. But Jesus says not to make a song and dance about it! Perhaps the reason that it’s fallen out of practice among so many is that we’re supposed to do it, without giving any clues that we’re doing it! Many of the saints of old did it, but they didn’t make a big fuss about it! If you want to do it to look or feel religious, don’t do it. If there’s no clear purpose behind, don’t do it. Donald Whitney in one of our books for the year- Spiritual Disciplines writes, “Without a clear biblical purpose, fasting becomes an end in itself. Every hunger pang only makes you calculate the time remaining until you can eat. Such thinking disconnects the experience in your mind and heart from the gospel and descends into the deception that perhaps your suffering will earn God’s favour.” In other words if we’re not sure why we are doing it can descend into the legalism and works righteousness we so desperately want to avoid. He then lists 10 reasons why you might want to fast, but I’m not going to go into it now
Whatever you think about fasting Jesus point is clear: If you’re going to do it, don’t do it for show! Don’t go around telling everyone that you’re fasting, or happening to drop it into conversation. Don’t go around complaining how hungry you are, or looking sad. Wash your face, do you hair as normal. That’s what he’s getting at in v17. Quite ironically or perhaps not, down through the ages again some have insisted on anointing their head with oil when they fast, even when it’s not culturally normal. All that does, again, is draw attention to the fact that you’re fasting! Fast stealthily Jesus says, fast secretly and then you will know why you are doing it, don’t wear a mask and your heavenly father will reward you!
So, putting this all together: If we take this teaching seriously then we will finally be able to say that the church is no longer full of hypocrites. Instead we’ll be church full of joy that brings glory to God. Serving God in public and in private. We’ll no longer have to wear masks, but we can approach Him and each other as we truly are; don’t we all want that truly? Let’s pray that God would give us the strength to honour him with the whole of our lives, not just the parts that other people see