At the moment the Community Group that I run is using some material by Francis Chan called ‘Multiply”. One of the sections that I we just looked at is on the idea of real Christian community. He asked a question: Why do you think we tend to focus on the external circumstances and behaviour when we try to help people change? As we talked about it we came to the conclusion that it is easily identifiable, you can change easily in the short term (try really hard), understanding and changing heart motivations is much harder.
The point is that it is easy to talk about what people do and try and reform that. It is hard to talk about why people do what they do and even harder to change that. And so, we need to watch ourselves lest we fall into the age-old trap that caught the Pharisees out.
Read Matt 6:1
Jesus warns us as Christians: ‘Be careful’. When Jesus says, ‘watch out’ you had been prick your ears and listen. Jesus is going to say that the best way to watch yourself is to forget about yourself – completely counter-intuitive. Jesus addresses three important areas of the Christian life where we are most susceptible; there is a pattern:
- When (not if)
- the hypocrites make a public show
- that is its own reward,
- the Father sees is that done in secret
- He will reward you.
Read Matt 6:2-8, 16-18
Giving to the poor
So firstly, giving, specifically to the poor. WHEN: all Jews were taught to give: there was the compulsory tithe and then voluntary giving of alms to the poor. The Jews believed that there was special merit attached to giving to the poor. And Jesus seems to be making a comical prod at the showiness of the ‘hypocrites’, arriving with a trumpet fanfare to announce their giving publicly.
Jesus warns that the acclaim and admiration of the people when witness your giving is the only reward that you will get. The idea of “received their reward in full” is actually a technical commercial term that meant “to receive full payment for an item and give a receipt”. The point is: nothing further is due to them.
At the centre of Jesus assessment of these people is the term hypocrite. For us this word means someone who pretends to be something they are not. But for Jesus hears the words meant a stage-actor: someone who skilfully takes on the identity and personality of someone they are not, doing it so well that we believe they are actually James Bond, or Erin Brockovich, or Captain Jack Sparrow. Of course, there is no harm in the theatre acting. We went recently to see a play at the Baxter call “The Fall” – the experiences of UCT students during the #mustfall student movements in 2015/16. The acting and the play was so good that they received a standing ovation at the end. I wanted to go and ask some of the actors for more details about what it was like to be in the #mustfall movement after the show – but then I remembered that they were just actors!
The harm in real life is the false presentation for who you actually are. They were seeking the applause of men for a depth of character that did not actually exist in their lives. The intensely perverse thing about these hypocrites is that they take something that was meant to be for the good of others (the poor) and they step into the limelight. These hypocrites may not literally have had trumpet, but we like to say: he likes to blow his own trumpet.
It is good and right not to seek public congratulation, but Jesus says the bar is not even seeking private congratulation form yourself. He says: don’t be a self-conscious giver because soon enough it will deteriorate into self-righteousness. That is the subtle deceitfulness of the heart. So keep your giving a secret from yourself. Jesus’ point: forget about your giving as soon as you have given. The best way to watch yourself is to be self-forgetful. That is what the “left hand/ right hand” thing is about. It is completely unnatural and it makes you look awkward when your left hand and right hand don’t know what each other are doing (EG Clapping). But that’s the point: as unnatural and awkward as it is: keep your giving secret from other AND even from your heart.
Again, when (not if) you pray – last week Bill Webster was expounding the necessity of prayer. The hypocrites pray in the most public and spiritual places to leverage their spiritual play-acting to increase their public persona. And the acclaim they get from people is all their reward will be.
I don’t think that Jesus is literally telling us that all prayer should be behind a closed door. There are many times when it is appropriate to pray publicly or at least with other people. Jesus is saying: make sure you are praying for an audience of One. Jesus is answering the question that Bill Hybels asked in the title of his helpful little book, “Who are you when no-one’s looking?” If your prayer life only exists in public it does not exist.
For the third time in chapter 6 Jesus say “when” not “if”. Later in Matthew (9:14-15) the Pharisees (who would fast two times a week – Monday and Thursday) criticised Jesus’ disciples for not fasting. But Jesus assures them that his disciples will fast when he is gone. And you see that the church leaders in the book of Acts do fast (13:2-3, 14:23).
Fasting is going without food for particular period of time for spiritual reasons. John Stott give four helpful categories of fasting:
- Distress over sin – humbling ourselves before God in repentance for sin. In the Bible fasting accompanies serious mourning and weeping, seeking of forgiveness, and confession (Jonah and hi preaching to Nineveh, Saul (Paul) of Tarsus) after his conversion).
- Dependence on God for future mercy. This is an expression of humble dependence on God for provision and guidance and rescue (Ezra and the Jews before they returned to Jerusalem, Esther and Jews before her approach to the King, Jesus in choosing his disciples)
- Discipline of your body. Hunger is one of our basic appetites and we can learn self-control and self-discipline through regular fasting.
- Deliberate doing without in order to share more generously. This would take the form of something like missing lunch twice a week in order that the lunch you would have eaten (or the cost thereof) could be given to the poor. It is a show of solidarity with the needy and reminds us of what we have.
The problem with the hypocrites was that they would look sombre and disfigure their faces (smear their face with ash). They were certainly fasting, but they wanted the reputation of a deep spirituality and devotion to God before their fellow Jews – so you had to make sure everyone knew! And that was their reward – the admiration of their onlookers.
Jesus says: brush your stinky teeth and wash under your arms! Look normal so that your fasting will be unseen by others. Your audience for you fast is God alone.
Reward from God
The full reward of those who play-act their spirituality before others is the acclaim they receive from men. But what does Jesus mean when he talks about the reward that the Father gives for true giving, prayer and fasting? The reward is getting what you were really seeking.
- If you are truly giving to the poor for the poor’s sake, then knowing that your giving has met the need of the poor is the Father’s reward that will completely satisfy you.
- If you are truly praying to the Father trusting that he hears and prayers and answers them according to his good purposes, then that is the Fathers’ reward that will completely satisfy you.
- If you fast to repent, or to plead for guidance, or to discipline your body, or to give more generously – then repentance or guidance or discipline or giving is the Father’s reward that will completely satisfy you. It will be enough!
And more than that, God rewards us with spiritual and eternal blessings. We should not think that Jesus is referring to a reward of a material blessing. There is nothing more that satisfies a Godward heart that being used by God and seeing him at work in and through your life.
Notice what Jesus has done here: he uncompromisingly uphold the need of Christian disciplines: when you give to the poor, pray and fast – there is no question that these are necessary parts of the Christian life. But he has also said that the heart motivation of the action itself is no less important than the action.
There are two ways to be distant from God: (1) I live this life for me and I will do whatever pleases me – e can call this an irreligious way to live; (2) it really matters how you live in this life because if you are good enough you can earn God’s favour – we can call this a religious way to live.
Why is God so dead-set against hypocrisy? Hypocrisy is about deception, pretence and façade – all of which require hiding the truth behind lies and in darkness. God knows that only light and truth brings true freedom and hope. You can fool me, you can fool others, but you cannot fool God.
The most hypocritical thing that you can do is try to fool God. You live and act as if you can be good enough to be acceptable before him. You ignore your sin. It is motivated by pride and self-love. I fact hypocrisy destroys the possibility to true relationship and community with other’s. You can’t relate to a façade. And it is the most terrible burned that will crush you – to live as someone that you are not.
The gospel frees us from the burden of living out of pride (I can be good enough to be accepted) or fear (I need to be good enough to be accepted). Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed”! That is the promise of the gospel – we can be accepted and loved and embraced by Christ and in the community that meets in his name. That is truly beautiful! “Man (and woman) recovers his (or her) true nature in the righteousness of Christ”. Do you want to be free to be who God really created you to be – that is the freedom found in Christ.
Please use / augment / discard these questions so that your group has a fruitful discussion
- What is the great danger that Jesus identifies of an unhealthy focus on the practice of Christian disciplines?
- In our giving, what is the point of the left hand not knowing that the right hand is doing?
- Is Jesus suggesting that all public prayer is to be avoided? If not, what is he getting at?
- Fasting is not a popular Christian activity today. Why do you think this is so? What is your experience of fasting? When have you fasted?
- Many Christians are uncomfortable about the idea of ‘reward’ for the practice of Christian disciplines
- What is the wrong kind of reward that hypocrites receive? And why?
- What is the right kind of reward that the Father gives that satisfies?
- Why do you think we tend to focus on the external circumstances and behaviour when we try to help people change?
- What is the risk of focussing on externals?
- Do you feel like your Community Group (or church) is a place where you are play-acting about the depth of Christian character? Do you feel free to be who you really are and reveal your struggles and failures?
 D.Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship