A different religion - Matthew 6:1-18
Back in December 1993 a young student from a college in Virginia, slumped to the wheel of his car as he drove down the main highway. He swerved into a truck and was killed instantly. What was to blame? Alcohol? Drugs? Pressure of work? No, in fact none of these. He had simply gone sleepless for almost a week in his passion to enter the world of AmberMUSH , a multi-user computer network dedicated to role-playing games.
In real life the student was awkward, shy and hardly a high flyer. But on line he could not have been more different. He was a desirable, treacherous, manipulative woman called Sabbath. Always a target for bullying as he was growing up, he developed into the consummate game-boy for whom being on line had become a lifeline to existence itself. Then, as family friends, were later to remark, the fantasy and the role-playing world became so completely real that he gave up on real life and moved into cyber-space. The result, the terminal became terminal.
Role playing may now have become something more sophisticated with the internet so that we can we can present ourselves as someone totally different to what we really are, but we are all adept at doing it to a greater or lesser extent, sophisticated or not- that is, hiding behind a mask of our own making, presenting a certain persona to others in order to impress. Of course this has been elevated to something of an art form in politics where spin and hype can sometimes take over from principle and substance. Impression management was certainly a feature of the Clinton administration. After meeting Clinton at Camp David, one well known Christian writer was told my an advisor Dont be fooled by the Presidents gratitude to you, He is whom he speaks to last. i.e. He is a chameleon.
And if this is a potential danger for political people, it is a particular danger for religious people like us. The temptation to play to the gallery for approval is always a strong one and that is why Jesus warns against it. The word he uses is hypocrisy , a Greek term meaning actor. It referred to a mask an actor world wear on stage. So one man could play several parts in a play and all he had to do was to swap masks. And I guess it could be said that he fooled the audience because if the mask was a good one you would not be able to spot the actor as such ,the man behind the mask , all you would see was the role played. And the shock of the Sermon on the Mount is that it is the religious man par excellence the Pharisee, the good and devout to whom this term applies. So do turn with me to Matthew 6 as we see how a series of contrasts are set up between the way the world operates in the religious sphere and how Jesus followers are meant to operate.
Now we are still dealing with the same theme of righteousness- the right way of living- v1 as Jesus speaking to his disciples he talks about their acts of righteousness. But whereas up to this point Jesus has been seeing how that works its way out over a whole host of moral issues- murder, adultery, divorce, retaliation- he now turns to specifically religious matters, the three great hallmarks of Jewish piety - giving, praying and fasting. Now he assumes that we will do these things, what he is concerned with is how we do them. Negatively, it is not to be like the normal religious person. When giving, v2 , Do not announce it with trumpets, when praying, v 5, do not be like the hypocrites and again v 7, do not be like the pagans, and when fasting, v 16, do not be sombre. That is the standard religious approach. And if you want a summary of the contrast between the way of the world and the way of Jesus it is this: Jesus followers are to foster a relationship rather than a routine.
Now in both cases, the religious person and the Christian person , it is assumed that they will be concerned about others who are watching them. Both carry out their religion before an audience. What Jesus wants to do is to ensure that we are concerned with the right audience. For the Pharisee what matters is what other people think, hence the warning of v 1 Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, in order to be seen by them. That is who the religious person is consumed by- he is so vain he probably thinks this verse is about him. Not so Jesus followers, their eye is to be on the audience of One, their Father in heaven. It is receiving his reward, his smile of approval if you like, which both motivates and liberates. It motivates because there is nothing like loving gratitude to generate humble obedience- he is our Father. And nothing quite liberates, for instead of living under the oppressive tyranny of trying to please our parents in say coming to church, or cow towing to religious authorities trying to please them for fear that sanctions might be imposed against you if your dont play the game, the joy of knowing that none of these things matter, provided that you are doing Gods work, Gods way -that is real freedom friends.
It was President Trueman who had to make some of the most awesome momentous decisions, including the dropping of the atom bomb, who said, I wonder how far Moses would have gone had he taken a poll in Egypt? It is all too easy for our lives to be lived by Gallup poll, always worried about what other people think and so adjust accordingly, rather than by a gyroscope, an internal direction finder which goes in the right direction come what may. So how can we as Christians make sure that we are trying to please God rather than people? Going by the spiritual gyroscope rather than the Gallup poll? Two principles: sincerity and secrecy.
Lets take the case of giving vv 2-4 . The hypocrites, when they give, blow their trumpet so that everyone can see what they are doing. And it still happens today doesnt it? Whether it is children in need or the local hospital who has a fund raising campaign, we know who has given because they have their picture in the paper showing them handing over huge cheques with the doctors and nurses standing around smiling. And it is being made perfectly clear just who the donor is and how generous they are being, and if it continues then they might just get their MBE. And let me tell you the same thing can happen in a church too. The rich and influential who makes it well known who holds the purse strings and he who pays the piper calls the tune. I can think of one church not that far away from here whose minister was made ill by the pressure put upon him by one powerful individual in the congregation upon whose generosity the financial well being of that church depended. And he made it perfectly clear what he expected that minister to preach and to do, with the implicit threat of what would happen if he didnt tow the line. Everyone knew how much he gave. And for the most part such people are loved for it, they are honoured as Jesus says. They will get the reserved seats at the concerts and dinners, they will have plaques put on the church wall so that they can be remembered when they die, while Mrs Smith who has been faithfully giving for years, and sacrificially too, doesnt get a look in, her name doesnt even appear in the book of remembrance. But, that is all that they will get says Jesus-they have received their reward in full. You want the praise of people, then that is exactly what you will get ,but that is all you will get. The praise that really counts, that really matters, you will not even have a whisper of- the praise of God.
No, the Christian is to give sincerely, that is out of a real desire to help those in need, not to get their names in the papers or face on the telly. That will not matter to them one wit, so long as that little starving baby is helped, that missionary is supported, and that gospel work is done. That is all the reward they need.
But the Christian will also do it secretly. That is what safeguards sincerity, because if you give anonymously, without the slightest hint of a fanfare, then you wont be tempted to give for the wrong reason will you? For you will have made sure that the opportunity for publicity is missing. Now can I assume that you are giving to the needy- physical and spiritual? That is the first step, make sure you are giving whatever your level of income. Then do it because you really want to help people. Then do it in such a way that it is between you and God. So often we dont want other people to know how much we give out of embarrassment at how little it is-that is not the reason Jesus gives, the more we give the more cautious we should be in ensuring few people know about it. Give sincerely, secretly, generously and cheerfully-why? Because that is the way God gives to us and if we are like our heavenly Father we will be like him in this respect too. So do you need to get your giving sorted out? Now would be a great time to do it. And let me say start young, because if you get into good giving habits now, it will stay with you for the rest of your lives.
Then Jesus turns to praying vv 5- 15 and the same two principles apply. The Pharisee prays impressively because he wants other people to be impressed- standing in the synagogue and on the streets-real impression management if ever there was. Now I always say grace at meals, I learnt that when I first became a Christian. God gives the food and I should thank him for it and not take it for granted. But I dont have to bow my head and bellow, especially in a restaurant : 'Thank you Lord for this food, even thought it is Mac Donalds. I hope all the other patrons are as thankful to God as I am. And although Mac Donalds has destroyed and mutilated this piece of beef, it did originally come from God so he is to be thanked. In the name of the One who saves us all- for John 3: 16 God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. -Amen.' Now what good does that do? I can actually thank God for my food without bowing my head, closing my eyes or uttering a word out loud. The reason I pray is because I am thankful to God and not because I have to ensure other people are impressed by me-including- other Christians.
But we tend to be oppressed by this. We read the stories of Luther and Wesley and discover that they spent 4 or 5 hours a day in prayer and we feel guilty because of our lack of prayerfulness. We think it is an achievement if we make 15 minutes! But God is not impressed by how long they have been praying, so why should you be? Their length of praying simply flowed out of their relationship with God. God would prefer three minutes of sincere prayer than three hours of wind. It is that you pray that matters not particularly how long you pray.
When I am with someone I get on with, I love talking to them. If they are in a position to help me when I am in need, I will talk to them about that. There would be something seriously wrong and strange with that relationship if I thought Well, today I had better make our conversation an especially lengthy one, an ear bender of mega proportions, otherwise he might no longer be my friend. I might not get what I ask for, so lets get talking That would be bizarre wouldnt it? Why then do we think that we have to act like that when it comes to God? Why even as Christians do we adopt the pagan principle of babbling as in v 7 When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. ?
Now I am all for the prayer meeting and it would be great if only more came to those, when as brothers and sisters meet as a family to talk to our heavenly Father. They are terrific times and we rob ourselves if we miss them. But I have to say that on the basis of this passage that I am troubled by some ideas about prayer that are floating around Christian circles at the moment. The idea of the prayer marathon or the prayer mountain- if we have a prayer relay throughout the night, or throughout the world at the same time then we will see revival. Now where do you get that in the Bible? You get it in paganism. It was the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel who had the prayer marathon, but it was Elijah who simply and sincerely uttered a prayer lasting no more than a few seconds who was heard- and how! You see, how we pray reveals how we view God.
If our view of God is as a weak god or a reluctant god, then we will have to devise ways of coaxing him. The idea that until we have prayed long enough, or intensely enough or interestingly enough, then he may not be able to act-he has to rely more upon us than we upon him. Or if he is reluctant for whatever reason, then we have to somehow twist his arm and overcome the reluctance. So, we have a prayer marathon. That is hardly the biblical view who presents us with a great King in whose hands are the hearts of all rulers, who is a heavenly Father who knows what his children want even before they ask. Sure, we are to be persistent in prayer, but that is not the same as being pagan in prayer, however well intentioned.
Now I find that I am more alert first thing in a morning. That is when I spend time in prayer. A prayer meeting at Three O clock in the morning, however, will not do me or anyone else any good except for me to think how wonderful I am that while others are sleeping I am praying so God must be impressed. We have to get out thinking right on this. And that the proper way of viewing prayer is simply and sincerely, is underscored by the model prayer Jesus gives in v 9. That is hardly a long prayer. It begins with a proper view of God as Father and holy who is transcendent-in heaven, so he isnt like the pagan gods subject to our wim and fancy. It is a prayer which reflects Gods priorities too- concern for his kingdom and it acknowledges that God enjoins us to share with him in his great work by praying and committing ourselves to his cause, so that his will be done. It also reflects a sense of humble dependence upon him for daily provision of food and forgiveness of sins- material and spiritual needs which he alone can meet, as well as our vulnerability to sin and asking that whenever in his sovereign love he allows us to be tested , he will provide a way of escape so that as we are tested we are strengthened. Such praying is sincere and measured- theologically informed- because it is Bible praying not pagan praying. Do you see how liberating and realistic the Bible is? It is lovely to talk to our heavenly Father ,so lets not exchange a relationship for religious rigmarole, however trendy.
And the same goes for fasting vv 16-18. What is the point of fasting? Well it is not so that we can show others how pious we are- v 16. That is pride. When I became chaplain at Keele university I inherited many things from my Anglo-Catholic predecessor, one of which was an Ash Wednesday Communion service where palm crosses were burnt and ash was then placed on the foreheads of communicants. That I did not do, for the very reason Jesus gives here. For students to go wondering around the campus with bits of ash on their forehead like Hindus is to draw attention to themselves in the wrong way. Jesus says, wash your face, splash on the Channel no 5 -if you are a girl or use my favourite aftershave which doesnt cost you a penny from any department store called tester. The point is look normal so as not to draw attention to yourself.
You have to go behind the reason for fasting to appreciate this which is the exact opposite of pride. You ahve to ask: what does it symbolise? Well, a humble state of mind before God. So in Isaiah 58 we read: Why have we fasted, why have we humbled ourselves? And this humbling is linked to our proper understanding of our position before the Lord ,that we are sinners and do not deserve to live. That is what the stands behind the act of fasting-going without food, that which is basic to life, acknowledging that but for Gods grace because of our rebellion against him we forfeit the right to life- for the wages of sin is death. And it may not be incidental that Jesus teaching about fasting follows straight on from his teaching about forgiveness.
Again we must not make the mistake of thinking that fasting is a way of bending Gods ear, so if we really want prayer answered we had better fast and pray. That is paganism again. It is sincerity which is the issue of which fasting is an outward expression and so to safeguard this it must be done secretly. And you will be rewarded ,says Jesus. It is not that giving, praying and fasting are a means to some other reward like a prize, you have written a good essay so here is the merit. Rather the reward is intrinsic to the action.
Think of it like this. We wouldnt rate a person who spends hours and hours practising the piano to become a concert pianist in order to earn stacks of money and be famous. That reward of fame and fortune could be obtained by other means- robbing banks for example. But what about the person who practises to become a pianist and in so doing gains personal satisfaction from playing the music and bringing enjoyment to others- that is his reward, which can only happen through the discipline of playing that piano. Well, in the spiritual realm, folk can be like the pianist who is simply out for fame and fortune- to get noticed. They get a reward but it is a cheap reward. But those who out of a sincere love of such a wonderful God , who gives because God is a great giver, who prays because he knows his Father loves to answer prayer and who fasts because he knows he is a sinner saved by grace, that has its own reward- becoming more like Jesus. Is that what you want? Then let us pray.
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