Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
We are now deep into our study of the Sermon on the Mount. This morning we begin chapter 6, where Jesus gives instructions about religious practices and how we should use our money.
But I want to pause briefly and take just a moment for us to consider how difficult the Christian life can be. This has been a challenging sermon series to write because every week brings new conviction. I’m preaching to myself.
It is true that Jesus offers us mercy and freedom by His blood. But the same Jesus who promises an easy yoke and a light burden also says that we must carry a cross and die if we follow Him.
John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, wrote these words in a letter at the age of 51: “The life of faith seems so simple and easy in theory, that I can point it out to others in few words; but in practice it is very difficult, and my advances are so slow, that I hardly dare say I get forward at all.”
I know what I’m supposed to do, but sin is always at my heels. And even when I do the right thing, it often becomes a source of pride instead of an expression of faith.
In fact – Jesus, in his demands for self-reflection, repentance, and faith is quick to warn us about our pursuit of righteousness. Let’s begin reading chapter 6, verse 1:
1 “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.
Look closely at this first sentence. We already have two issues that we need to clear up.
First, there are some who think Jesus is telling us to keep our religion completely private. But that is not what Jesus says.
Remember in chapter 5, Jesus commanded us to let our light shine before men. In other words, He actually wants us to practice our righteousness before other people. But He doesn’t want us to do it “in order to be seen by them”.
It is not wrong to be seen doing good, but it is wrong to do good in order to be seen. I’ll explain this more as we come to the specific examples in our text.
Second, notice that Jesus mentions a reward. He’s actually going to mention rewards exactly seven times, meaning that it must be really important. And that raises a question: is Jesus encouraging us to be good only to earn a reward? This will also become clear as we read, but I wanted you to notice both of these issues. Verse 2:
2 “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.
We don’t know if the religious leaders actually used trumpets to announce their giving, but it would not surprise me. They made a spectacle out of everything they did.
They wanted praise from men and Jesus says they already have that. But that’s all they will get… there will be no further reward from God. And there’s that word again, reward.
But notice also, Jesus says “when you give to the needy”. He doesn’t say “if you give”. He says “when you give”. Jesus assumed that his disciples would give. He expected them to give to people in need. Verse 3:
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Imagine a child on a playground trying to get the attention of his mom or dad. “Watch what I can do mommy! Look at me! Look at me!”
The parent – child relationship makes that normal. But to everyone else, it quickly gets annoying. And I think this is what Jesus is telling us. My Father in heaven cares about my giving and He sees it. And He’s the only One who needs to see it.
We don’t need to be seen by everyone else and our childish anxiety to get everyone’s attention is not an expression of righteousness. It’s annoying and it takes the focus away from the relationship that matters most. God sees. That should be enough. And again, Jesus mentions a reward. Verse 5:
5 “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.
Different example – same message. Another mention of rewards.
Again, notice that Jesus says, “When you pray…” not “if you pray”. He expects us to pray. Verse 6:
6 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.
Some people interpret this to mean that Jesus forbids us from praying in public. I don’t think that is the correct application for a few reasons.
Public prayer was a part of worship in both the Old and New Testaments. There were also several occasions when Jesus intentionally allowed His disciples to see and hear Him praying.
It’s also worth mentioning that all the Greek words in verses 5 and 6 are singular. That tells me that Jesus is referring to personal, private prayer.
We know that the religious leaders would often pray out loud in public places – not as part of a corporate worship service, but only to be seen praying. That is what Jesus forbids.
We will skip verses 7-15 today. That is the Lord’s Prayer and I want to give it a Sunday of its own. Verse 16:
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.
Giving, praying, and fasting… these are the three religious practices that Jesus talks about. We know what He means by giving and praying, but most Christians today have no idea what fasting is about – because churches don’t talk about it much.
Notice again, Jesus says, “When you fast…” He’s not discouraging us from fasting. He expects that we will.
To be honest, I should probably talk about it more often because it is an extremely Biblical practice, and it can be very helpful in our growth as Christians.
Let me start by explaining what fasting is not. Fasting is not a physical or psychological discipline. It is not a diet. The Bible encourages us to eat healthy, but that has nothing to do with fasting.
It is also not a manipulative tool to get God to do what we want or to earn favor with Him. God does not reward people just because they did a fast. Jeremiah 14:12 says, “Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them.” So, please don’t try fasting to get something from God.
Biblical fasting is a spiritual discipline, and it always occurs with prayer. You may pray without fasting, but you can never fast without praying. Fasting is abstaining from food in order to deepen our communication with God for a period of time.
Our hunger reminds us of our need of Him and leads us to prayer. It is a physical way of saying, “Jesus is more important to me than food.”
But apparently there were people who would make it obvious they were doing a fast to get attention. And again, this is childish behavior.
Imagine a child walking around with a pouty face. What do they want? Attention! They want someone to ask what’s wrong!
There were people who made themselves look pitiful so everyone would know they were fasting. And Jesus teaches us to avoid such childish behavior.
Giving, praying, fasting – really any of the ways we practice our faith – can became a show. And once again, Jesus encourages us to look at the heart. Dig deeper. Just because other people think you are doing well, it doesn’t mean you are. What does God think of you?
A.A. Bruce summarizes the message of Jesus in this way – “We are to show when tempted to hide and hide when tempted to show.” It is a challenge, but what is my primary concern? Is it the glory of God or the glory of Mike?
I’ll give you an example from this week. Earlier this week, I saw a need for something, and I prayed about it. Just a quick prayer, nothing special. Less than an hour later, someone called me with an answer to that prayer. It was very obvious to me that God orchestrated the entire thing. I did nothing except pray and I’ve seen God do things like that dozens of times over the years.
It would be easy for me to make it about myself, as if I have some special connection to God. Instead, I hope I tell the story in such a way that God is glorified. It’s not about me at all. I want you to know God answers prayer.
Now, I want to finish by going back to the rewards. Jesus mentions God’s rewards seven times. We would be foolish to ignore it. But what does He mean by it?
On this question, I found C.S. Lewis to be very helpful. Lewis talks about two types of rewards: extrinsic and intrinsic.
An extrinsic reward is a gift that has no real connection to the action you performed. It’s like winning a prize at the fair. We play those silly carnival games in order to win the oversized stuffed animal, not because we love the games. We just want the reward.
But an intrinsic reward is something we get that is connected to the action. For instance, two people fall in love and they are rewarded with a happy marriage. A student works hard in high school and is rewarded with a scholarship. A hunter patiently waits all season to get the trophy deer. The reward is connected to the action. In other words, we don’t just do these things in order to be rewarded.
And I believe that’s the type of reward Jesus is talking about. Someone’s needs are met. Someone gets closer to Jesus. We flourish as a result of our efforts.
It would be wrong to think of this reward as winning the grand prize in heaven, because Jesus is the grand prize! Our reward is being more like Him. Our reward is being with Him. Our reward is seeing other people come to know Him as well.
Think back to my illustration from earlier – there’s a child on the playground trying to get mom’s attention. But this time he falls and scrapes his knee. In tears, the child looks up to see a stranger standing nearby and the stranger says, “Come to me! I’ll kiss it and make it better!”
What’s the child going to do? Scream loudly and run to his mom as fast as he can. Why? He doesn’t want comfort from a stranger. He wants comfort from a trusted parent. It’s not what we say or do in that moment. It has much more to do with who we are. My child knows me. My child trusts me.
That is the kind of relationship Jesus wants His disciples to have with the Father. Our religious practices matter only in the sense that they bring us closer to the Father. That is the reward! We already have His attention. Why are we so anxious?
In other words, Jesus is inviting us to enjoy the kind of relationship that He has with His Father. And that will be even more clear next week as we study the Lord’s Prayer.
But this morning, we come to the Lord’s table.