In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discusses three core practices of Jewish piety. He explains how we should be careful that our motivation is the right one. Jesus confronts hypocrisy, because He knew it would destroy intimacy - the very thing our soul most craves for.
Jesus sets out His argument in the first verse, and we’ll pause on this verse for a bit, before continuing to explore the rest of the passage.
Matthew 6:1 (ESV)
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
This verse opens Jesus’ argument for true righteous living. Let me discuss two words with you before we dive into the examples Jesus gives to illustrate this point.
The concept of ‘righteous living’ was something people in both the Jewish context and the Greek context highly valued. The Greek word translated as ‘righteousness’ is dikaiosune, and this was a word that truly meant something in that day. It can be translated as ‘right-living’ or even ‘true inner goodness’.
Centuries before Jesus walked the earth, Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle discussed what ‘right living would mean and what this would look like in everyday life. Interestingly, Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, when discussing ethical matters, changed the word dikaiosune for arete, which means ‘virtue’. And this is a word that has stood the test of time and went across cultures – also to the Jewish world.
This is a big change of approach, though. When we think about how we should live, the word virtue shifts the emphasis from heart to behavior – from the inside to the outside - from authenticity to performance.
Jesus and the New Testament writers much prefer dikaiosune over arete. He teaches that we shouldn’t just do the right thing, but do the right thing with the right motivation.
Dikaiosune is a matter of the heart first, and a matter of behavior second. True inner righteousness, according to Jesus and the New Testament, is about coming into right standing with God, living your life to glorify the Creator.
This is why righteousness, or more specifically; true inner rightness, can only follow after believing in Jesus, because through faith we are forgiven of our sins and come into right standing with God, experiencing a change of heart, so that we can live righteously.
In order to…
The key to understanding the difference between doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or doing the right thing for the right reason is found in the phrase; in order to. This gives away the true motivation of the heart. Are you doing it in order to get applause, recognition, adoration and fame from people? Or are you doing it purely and only to glorify God and live righteously in His sight?
So, the question is not: was I seen? but rather: did I do this in order to be seen?
Jesus will apply this principle to three practices: generosity, prayer and fasting. These three examples aren’t random picks, they are the three core practices of Jewish piety.
If you’d ask a first century Jew what a God-honering life would look like, there is a good chance he’d answer: give money to the poor, pray three times a day and fast regularly.
Jesus will explain that, if you want to live righteously, glorifying God in all you do, you’d better do these things with the right motivation.
Matthew 6:2-4 (ESV)
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
If you give something away in order to be known as a generous person, you’ve got a problem.
The trumpets mentioned here are probably symbolic, but who knows, maybe there were actually people who were announcing their generous gifts with blowing a trumpet. I guess that’s where the expression ‘tooting your own horn’ comes from.
Perhaps we could replace ‘sound no trumpet before you’ with ‘posting about it on Instagram’. Jesus says, the applause of people is all the reward that you get. I hope you enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s gone before you know it.
If you want to glorify God with your generosity, let your giving be in secret. In other words – no one else but God has got to know about this – and probably your spouse because you share a bank-account.
Jesus uses the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe the person that is making a performance out of his piety. Much of his confrontation with the religious establishment in His day was around this topic.
Hypocrisy was a big deal for Jesus.
Jesus confronted them with their double standards, their need for praise and recognition instead of devotion to God and the way they judged others on things they didn’t even keep themselves. Hypocrisy was a big deal for Jesus.
The word ‘hypocrite’ is taken directly out of the context of acting, and this helps us to understand it better. We become hypocrites when we put on a show, make a performance out of our righteousness – but all we are doing is playing a role. It’s not who we really are. And even though people may be applauding, God won’t.
I don’t know about you, but often, when I read through the Gospels, I imagine myself being one of the disciples. But perhaps, it would be good if we could place ourselves in the shoes of the Pharisees every now and again, and see these words of Jesus as directed at us.
What is the hypocrisy in me? Are there things that I do or say or post that don’t reflect the real me, but the me that I want others to see? And how is this hypocrisy keeping me away from intimacy with God? Do I present myself to God in a different way as well, even though I believe that I can come just as I am?
Matthew 6:5-8 (ESV)
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
So, again, Jesus points to hypocrisy as something that deeply disturbs the authenticity of your relationship with God. Jesus is not against any public form of prayer. Right after this, He will teach His disciples a prayer that is not only a private but also a communal prayer, starting with ‘our Father’.
What He points out, is that prayer can never be a performance. You might impress others, but God won’t be impressed.
The last verse may raise some new questions. What does Jesus mean with this ‘heaping up empty words’? Jesus is not against long prayers. The Bible teaches He often went out to pray for a long time. We also see Jesus repeating His prayers, for example in the Garden of Getsemane where He prayed the same thing three times. And on another occasion, Jesus teaches through a parable that we should be persistent in prayer, like someone demanding justice.
The key to understanding this part, is the word ‘Gentiles’, meaning non-Jews. He said that their prayers are empty, showy and meaningless. And this is not just because their prayers are not directed at the One True God, but because their whole approach to prayer is off.
The pagan approach to prayer is to get something out of their small 'g' god. Through endless repetitions, praying in a trance, self-flagellation and things like that, they tried to get their god to do something for them.
Remember the scene on mount Carmel where Elijah challenged the priests of Baal? All day they were crying out “Baal answer us”, shouting, limping and cutting themselves with swords. But nothing happened…
Jesus is pointing us to a completely different approach to prayer. He teaches us that prayer is about intimacy with God. That’s why the private prayer is more important than the public prayer.
If the only focus of our prayer is to get God to do what we want, it’s nothing more but an exercise in missing the point.
I love how Dallas Willard describes prayer. He says that “prayer is an intelligent conversation about matters of mutual concern”. If our approach to prayer is to get God to do what we want, it’s nothing more but an exercise in missing the point.
Through prayer, we want to get aligned with God’s will, more than the other way around. In prayer, we connect with our Father, pour out our hearts and seek His direction. Yes, part of prayer is directing God’s attention to certain situations. Yet, we don’t pray to get something from Him, but instead, through prayer, we partner with God to see His Kingdom come to earth.
So, again, Jesus points out that motivation matters. Prayer is not a performance, nor a way to manipulate God into doing something – but an intimate conversation with God.
Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV)
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Again, the same principle applies: don’t make a performance out of your spiritual life. Whether it is your generosity, your prayers or your fasting – the only one we should be doing this for, is God. And so, Jesus says, it’s better to do these things in secret then in public.
Hypocrisy destroys intimacy
Jesus is so outspoken about hypocrisy, because it corrupts authenticity and destroys intimacy.
God is inviting us into an intimate relationship with Him. And we grow in intimacy with Him when we live out His generous heart, when we seek His face in prayer and when we deny ourselves of food for a while in order to go even deeper with Him.
God longs for us to be intimate with Him. Intimacy with God is the reason why we exist. It’s our soul’s deepest need.
Hypocrisy corrupts authenticity and destroys intimacy.
But when we make a performance out of it, we miss out on that intimacy – which is the reward that Jesus speaks of.
And He says: I hope that you enjoy the applause, because that’s all you are going to get out of it. As soon as you shifted your focus from seeking intimacy with God to being seen by others, God tuned out. I hope you enjoy all the likes to your Insta-post. I hope that people may think of you as very spiritual. I hope they will be very impressed with you. But you miss out on the thing your soul needs to be healthy; intimacy with God.
Intimacy with God is found in the hidden places
The thing is, the Father doesn’t just see in secret, He is in secret. Intimacy with God is found in the hidden places, when we shut the door or take a walk. Isn’t that a hopeful message in a time of social isolation?
Living the Kingdom
As the people of God, living and anticipating the Kingdom, we live our lives for an Audience of One.
Paul would write this to the church in Colossae:
Colossians 3:23-24 (NLT)
Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.
I want every single part of my life, whatever I do, to be dedicated to God and sit under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
For far too long we have divided the world up into sacred and non-sacred, as if God is only concerned with us when we do spiritual things. No! I want my washing the dishes, cooking food, playing with my daughter, doing groceries and driving my car to give as much glory to God as the time I spend on my knees!
One thing I hate most about the times we live in is that we are advised not to sing in church. And many Christians get into quite a fit about it, and perhaps they are right.
I want to emphasise that your whole life is an act of worship. You glorify God by working hard at your job. You are singing a song of praise by spending quality time with your family, giving your kids your full and undistracted attention. You glorify God by giving up some of your personal privileges to keep others safe.
Anticipating the Kingdom
Jesus confirms the importance of giving, prayer and fasting by saying “when” you give, pray and fast, not “if”. Now that we live in a time when gathering is restricted, perhaps there is an invitation there to seek God more through spiritual disciplines.
Take some time to evaluate your prayer routine. What does it look like? Is there a regularity in it? What has the Holy Spirit been challenging you about and inviting you into for so long?
2020 can still be our best year ever, spiritually.
2020 has been a very difficult year for most of us, marked by loss, uncertainty, fear and frustration. Yet, I believe that, if we respond to the Spirits invitation to experience intimacy with God in adopting new spiritual disciplines, 2020 can still be our best year ever, spiritually.