When you play to an audience of One, the applause never ends.
It’s Sunday morning worship. The organist plays softly while sedate ushers move through their paces. As an offering plate passes down the row behind you, someone takes a deep breath. TA-DAH!!! A blast of sound jolts the entire congregation. With adrenalin pumping through your system, you pivot in your pew and see a man lowering a trumpet from his lips. With a wry smile he glances about, savoring everyone’s attention, then he lifts his chin a bit and drops a thick roll of bills into the plate.
As preposterous as this scenario is, something much like it was common in Jesus' day. People whom Jesus calls "the hypocrites" in Mt. 6:1-18 (perhaps the Pharisees), did everything in their power to assure public recognition of their gifts in the synagogues and to the needy on the streets. As if this weren't enough, these hypocrites also prayed and fasted with an eye toward the crowd. For them, image was everything.
Jesus says this isn't the way Christians should "do" righteousness. "Be careful," He warns, "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" (Mt. 6:1).
All who repent and believe in Christ are declared righteous by God the Father based on Jesus' work on the Cross (Ro. 3:22-24). And those who have been declared righteous will begin to do righteousness.
In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus tells us how to do righteousness in ways that please God and bring reward from Him. He describes doing righteousness in terms of practices often referred to today as spiritual disciplines. In particular, Jesus mentions giving, praying, and fasting.
But just as Jesus' words are not limited to the three disciplines mentioned in this passage, there is much more to doing righteousness than the mere performance of these or any other Christian activities.
Doing Righteousness Wrongly
In discussing each of the disciplines, Jesus uses "the hypocrites" as an illustration of how righteousness should not be done. When giving, He said, "do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites in the synagogues and on the streets" (v. 2). When praying, "do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners" (v. 5). And when fasting, "do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces" (v. 16).
The way these hypocrites gave, prayed, and fasted was symptomatic of a deeper problem. Their acts of righteousness were religious veneer. Their consuming concern was to be admired as godly men. The warning of this passage is against engaging in the right practices for the wrong reasons. Jesus teaches here that the real issue is our motive.
Every true believer in Christ wants to be considered Christlike. No Christian should have the reputation of being unspiritual. But the perversion of this attitude comes when we think we must create an image of spirituality by being noticed doing spiritual things.
Just like the Pharisees, sometimes I am tempted to make an offhand comment about how much I had to sacrifice to give to a special offering at church, or I "casually" mention how difficult (or how rewarding) it is to spend extra time in a particular ministry. While praying with others, I'm sometimes tempted to be more concerned about the effect of my words on those listening than with communicating with God. This is the same temptation that seduces a teacher or preacher to impress people with his speaking ability rather than with Jesus Christ and His truth.
Even if a few misled people are impressed with such performances, God never is. Three times Jesus said of such hypocrites, "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (vv. 2, 5, 16). The hypocrites in this passage weren't really concerned about heavenly rewards. They got exactly the reward they wanted—to be seen and honored by men. But that was all the reward they got. And it’s all the reward any of us gets for the times we do righteousness wrongly, that is, with the wrong motives.
Doing Righteousness Rightly
Jesus not only said how not to do acts of righteousness, He also explained how to do them.
Give in secret. By saying, "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (v. 3), Jesus did not mean that we should only make anonymous gifts of cash or goods. Nor does it mean you should try to keep people from ever seeing you in any form of ministry. As long as your intent is to keep your giving or serving from becoming unnecessarily known, you avoid the hypocrisy Jesus condemns.
Pray in private. The perfect Teacher of prayer says, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (v. 6). Prayer in solitude is a wonderful discipline to be practiced regularly. But this verse is not limited to such a narrow interpretation. It is possible to "close the door and pray to your Father" even with others around. (On the other hand, it is possible to pray in solitude and make sure everyone knows about it!) The point is to pray in such a way that we close out everything else and close ourselves in with God. You can pray privately in a crowded mall, or surrounded by office workers, or in a room full of classmates.
You can even be praying with others, for in several places the Bible teaches and models group and public prayer. What Jesus denounces in public prayer is the attempt to parade one’s piety. If, even in group prayer, we "close the door" and concentrate on talking to God, we will do righteousness rightly.
Fast undetected. Instead of looking like refugees from a concentration camp, we should present ourselves normally "so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen" (v. 18). Sometimes it’s difficult to avoid letting others know—especially at home—that you're fasting. But again, the main point is that when we do this or any other personal spiritual discipline, we should do so for God, and not to get oohs and ahs from others.
Our motive in any act of righteousness should be a blend of bringing glory to God, increasing intimacy with God, and seeking the rewards of God.
When we do righteousness rightly, Jesus promises, "your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (vv. 4, 6, 18). Our acts of righteousness done for the gaze of God alone will not be overlooked. He sees everything, even the smallest, most humble gift or act of service for His sake, and He pledges to reward it.
The reward Jesus promises repeatedly in this section could be an answer to a specific prayer or increased spiritual growth. But it’s more likely that Jesus speaks here of a priceless, eternal reward, like the heavenly treasures mentioned in the next paragraph (vv. 19-21). In that case, He is calling us to do righteousness with an eternal perspective. On the Day when God will "test the quality of each man’s work" (1 Cor. 3:13), nothing will be forgotten, and He will reward all acts of righteousness rightly done.
It is not mercenary to do righteousness in hopes of eternal reward when God is the One who holds the reward before us. But there is no greater reward than God Himself. No treasure in Heaven will compare with the pleasure of His glory. Neither is there any blessing on earth more costly and precious than the relationship we have with Him now. Even if He never gave us any earthly rewards for doing righteousness, the enjoyment of a living, growing relationship with the King of the Universe should be sufficient reward. And even if others undervalue our spirituality, the delight of knowing that God values it is reward enough for now.
It takes faith to let God alone observe our righteous deeds. But we must be content to let Him keep the records. For with Him alone is the reward that matters.
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