READ : Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18
Would you consider yourself to be a religious person? If you are, you’re going to be interested in hearing what Jesus had to say about how his followers should practice their religious duties.
Some years back I came across a book with the intriguing title How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. The book made the important point that Christianity is, at its heart, about a relationship, not a religion. The fundamental Christian truth is that the way to God is not through the careful practicing of religious rituals and observances but through a living faith in Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh.
Of course, Christians too are religious. You can’t really be a Christian without being religious; everyone has to live out what they believe somehow. Christians pray, Christians worship. Christians give alms and undertake religious acts of charity and mercy. Christians fast, and practice other disciplines of the spiritual life. While there have been those who, reacting against hypocrisy or other defects in the church, have called for a “religionless Christianity,” such a thing in practice is neither possible nor desirable. But we can understand what they are trying to say. They’re saying that merely having the name of a Christian isn’t enough; that going to church just for the sake of appearances or to maintain an image or reputation is worse than not going at all; that if your Christianity is all form and no substance, all sentiment and no practical love, if it’s only a matter of words and posturing and not the main business of your life, then it’s a worthless sham.
The book I just mentioned wasn’t really arguing against being religious. It was arguing against being religious for the wrong reason, or in the wrong way. That is exactly what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount in a section that could be entitled, How To Be Religious While Being a Christian.
PRACTICING YOUR PIETY
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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 whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (nrsv)
At the beginning of Matthew 6 Jesus turns from instruction in ethical responsibilities (the subject of his sermon thus far) to teaching about religious duties. The phrase Jesus uses in the very first verse states his subject: he’s talking about “practicing your piety.” Jesus’ main point – really the only point he makes here about religion – is deceptively simple. All he wants to say to his followers is that religious acts must be done only for God, for God alone: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Religion isn’t something we do for other people, to enhance our own status or reputation for spirituality in their eyes. It isn’t even something we do for ourselves. The most basic and deadly mistake you can make is to think that religious behavior can earn God’s favor for you, or that the way to be saved is through developing a find repertoire of pious activities. The only religion that matters is one that is offered to God out of gratitude for his gracious mercy in Jesus Christ – as a response to his love, not a way to secure it. The only prayers and worship and acts of piety pleasing to God are those that come out of a life also devoted to mercy, righteousness, justice, and truth. Remember, we’re in the middle of a discourse on ethics here when Jesus starts to talk about how to be religious. Personal worship that is not accompanied by good living is disgusting to God, no matter how lavish it is.
ALMS, PRAYER, AND FASTING
Jesus develops his teaching on how to practice piety by choosing three examples of basic religious activities and applying his central point to each one. The three areas he covers are alms-giving (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15), and fasting (vv. 16-18). Jesus’ concern is not to motivate his followers to do these things; rather, he assumes that anyone who is his disciple will regularly practice them all. Notice how he introduces each one with the same phrase, “when you give . . . when you pray . . . when you fast . . .” (vv. 2, 5, 16). His concern is to explain how he wants us to conduct ourselves as we carry out the charity, piety and self-discipline that he expects will be habitual to us if we are Christians.
Jesus’ principle in each case is that we are to conduct ourselves in a humble, self-effacing way, never drawing attention to ourselves and our good works, but always doing them only for the Lord’s sake. Thus, for example, when we give to the needy, we must do so secretly; in Jesus’ famous hyperbole, “not letting our left hand know what our right is doing” (v. 3). Charity is a wonderful thing, but it has a way of puffing us up. (The subtlest and most harmful temptation is to be proud of how religious we have become; we’re much safer thinking of ourselves only as poor sinners.) Those who have the means of giving to the poor, or to the church, or to other worthy causes, in doing so also produce the means of feeling pretty good about themselves. It’s nice to have the satisfaction of thinking of oneself as a benefactor of humanity. But for Christians, the purpose of giving is not so that anyone – including us! – may think what fine, generous people we are; it is to glorify God. So Jesus tells us to go about our giving quietly and unselfconsciously, without paying too much attention to it even ourselves.
Likewise in our prayer and devotional lives. When we pray we must not ostentatiously draw attention to ourselves, but instead go into our room and shut the door and pray in secret (vv. 5-6). And when fasting – and Jesus does expect that his followers will fast and pray and engage in other appropriate spiritual disciplines – we must do so while continuing our ordinary, everyday life and appearances (vv. 16-17). The point is not to make a big deal of our devotional lives or do anything for show.
Jesus’ practical religious instructions all have a common, overarching purpose: to remind us that whatever we do for God must really and truly be done for him, not for anyone or anything else. We should not apply Jesus’ teaching here legalistically, so that, for example, we insist that all gifts must always be anonymous or that we may never pray in public. No, he is trying to get us to think about the spirit in which we “practice our piety,” and particularly the motive that lies behind our actions. One of the most insidious things religious people do is to promote our own reputations for piety and goodness. Jesus reminds us here that there is only one proper audience for all the good we do – and he doesn’t have to be told who has done what.
Here’s a good practical test: Do you feel the need to blow your own horn? (v. 2.) Do you feel resentment when you are not properly credited for some gift given or kindness done? Then ask yourself for whom you were doing those things. If you were doing them only for yourself, to stroke your own ego, then you should of course make sure you do get the credit, and once you have it, you also have your reward – the only reward you’ll ever get (vv. 2, 5, 16). But if you do good and give and pray out of love for your heavenly Father and in the desire to express your thanks to him, then of course you won’t care whether people know about it, because God always does know. In fact, you’ll want to hide these things as much as possible from others so that they can be just between you and your Father in heaven.
THE GOD WHO SEES IN SECRET
Jesus reminds us here of a wonderful truth about God. God is “the God who sees what is done in secret”; three times over Jesus uses that phrase to describe him (v. 4, 6, 18). God knows everything. God sees everything. There’s a story in the Old Testament about a woman named Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant who belonged to Sarah, the wife of the patriarch Abraham. When Sarah was barren, she gave her maid to her husband, and Hagar conceived a child. But Sarah soon resented Hagar, and drove her away into the desert. There Hagar sat, miserable, alone and friendless, with nowhere to go and no one to help. But the Lord was with her. God spoke to her by a spring in the desert, promising blessing to her and telling her what to do, and Hagar cried out, “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” And the well where God visited Hagar was called Beer Lahai Roi; the “Well of the God Who Sees” (Gen. 16:13-14).
The fact that God is a God who sees can be a disturbing truth, for it means he sees all the things we’d rather keep hidden from him. He sees through all our games, he knows all our little tricks, he knows every thought we have, he knows even our innermost motives and desires. You cannot hide or run away from a God who sees.
But it is also a comforting truth – profoundly comforting. In the 139th Psalm the psalmist celebrates the perfect knowledge God has of us:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit down and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar . . . you are familiar with all my ways.
We live our lives under the gaze of an all-seeing God. He knows when and where we sit down and rise up, when we go and when we come, even if we’re in the uttermost parts of the earth, if like Haggar we’re lost and alone in the wilderness. God is there with us, and he knows. He knows everything we are doing and everywhere we are going, whether sleeping or waking, working or worshiping, every moment of our lives.
That is a wonderful thing, if you are a Christian. It means that not one good act that you do, however small, will ever be overlooked by the Lord. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten; there is no kindness that will go unrepaid, no compassionate act unrewarded, no prayer unheard, no grief or heartbreak that he does not see and which he will not heal. The knowledge that our heavenly Father sees all that is done in secret can set us free to live for him, without worrying about anyone or anything else.