Don't make a performance of your piety. God is the audience,
not your fellowman, so you can stop acting.

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men,
to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your
Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed,
do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do . . . .
But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand
know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed
may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself
reward you openly.

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they 
love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of 
the streets, that they may be seen. Assuredly, I say to you, they 
have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, 
and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in 
the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward 
you openly. . . .

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a
sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may
appear to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their
reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your
face, so that you do not appear to be fasting; and your Father
who sees in secret will reward you openly."

                                                      Matthew 6:1-18 NKJV, condensed

                                      Giving, Praying and Fasting

It is time to acknowledge that Jesus had a sense of humor, and this
passage is a good example. One of the problems in understanding the
Bible is that we are reading the words and not listening to them in their
original, spoken form. We miss the nuances and signs of passion in
tone and body language. We don't know the winks or the sparkle in the
eye when people joked, or poked fun at each other. Obviously I think
we are more serious than we need to be when reading a passage
such as this one.

Jesus had just finished a long discussion on the Law and the Prophets.
Now it was time to lighten up for a few minutes. Jesus had critical
words to deliver, but he did it in a humorous way. When you do a
good deed, don't hire a trumpeter to go before you and announce your
deed! I believe people laughed when they heard that. Don't let your left
hand know what your right hand is doing--just imagine what a comedian
could do with that image! When you pray, don't stand at a busy
intersection with a sign saying, "I'm praying." When you fast, don't
go around looking dirty and miserable; instead wash up and pour on
some oil of gladness! Yes, you have permission to smile at this,
even chuckle.

In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made up
some additional commandments of his own:

  • Don't let God catch you acting.
  • Don't store up treasures on earth.
  • Don't worry.
  • Don't judge the hearts of other people.

We'll save the last three for succeeding studies and start with the one
about acting out our religious disciplines. We give to the less fortunate,
we talk to God, we abstain from food or other pleasures in order to
concentrate on spiritual matters--these are three familiar practices.
They all reflect the risk of being empty. When we give, we empty our
pockets or checkbook. When we pray, we empty some time and
space to give attention to God. When we fast, we literally empty
ourselves to become more sensitive to the fullness of God's presence.

Jesus is not recommending that we end these traditions. He is
protesting the misguided and faulty thinking behind the deed. It's not
the giving, praying or fasting that is wrong; the error is in the motivation
and the temptation to deceive. Before sighing with relief that these
words are for the rich and pompous, take another look. Jesus is
speaking to us. Human nature has not changed all that much since
Jesus' day. Religious disciplines are something like the commandments
and can become no more than an external performance motivated
by our desire to look good in the eyes of those we are trying to impress.

Humor is frequently used to make a serious point. And here it is:
Don't let God catch you acting. Hypocrite means actor, one who wears
a mask. A hypocrite is one who acts religious only when others are
present to observe.

If we associate good deeds with the approval of those around us, they
become our motivation. Friends and neighbors become the determining
factor, and we depend upon them to get us moving in the right direction.
That's where Jesus said, "Take heed." Because, when we rely on
others to cheer us on through life, the temptation is to deceive. It's so
easy. Take the shortcut. What does it matter! The mask goes on and
we really look good.

Why perform deeds of kindness? So that people will think well of us?
Or for sheer love of God? Jesus presented a choice. We can put on a
performance and get accolades from our peers. Or we can live out our
obedience to God with no outward show, and get praise and reward
from our Father in heaven. What do you value more? The admiration
of your peers or the approval of God?

Are the rewards of God able to compete with the applause of our
fellowman? Jesus seems to be saying that God needs our attention
in order to reward us, and that applause distracts us. It detracts from
the greater joy of God's good pleasure. If you want to pray, go home.
Shut the door and pray to your Father in heaven. We settle for
crumbs when we could have a real feast!


Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further
study or reflection.


Icebreaker: What good deed have you done for which you received
                   public recognition or tokens of appreciation?

Note the similarities and the common thread in these three paragraphs
of Jesus.
            What is seen?    What is secret?
            What is rewarded? And by whom?
            Does Jesus mean I should be quiet about being a Christian?
            What does God want from us, according to these verses?


We routinely acknowledge and praise those who do honorable deeds.
            Why would Jesus warn against public recognition?


We need to use caution and not put undue emphasis on the right and
wrong way to give, pray or fast. That would miss the mark and lead to
unproductive tangents. The point is that God sees you give, pray and fast,
and that's what really matters.
            Since God sees what you do in private, do you give God
                        something good to look at?
            Are you comfortable with the thought that God sees your heart?
            Is your giving, praying and fasting real?     Or is it acting?


Rank the love of God as a motivating factor in your life?
            If #1 were none, and #10 were 100%, what number indicates the
                        influence of God's love in determining what you do?
            Is love of God a greater or lesser influence than the approval
                        of your peers.


Read Matthew 5:16. It's the passage about letting our light shine 
for all to see.
            Why would Jesus make that statement, and then tell us to
                        give to charity, and pray and fast in secret?
            Is your faith a private or public matter?
                        What should be private about it?
                        What should be public?


What do you like better--the momentary praise of those around you,
or the promise which you must take by faith that God will reward
you openly? 
            What are the rewards of God?
                        Are they tangible or intangible?
            Are God's rewards the same thing as blessings?
            Do God's rewards come in this life or in the next life?

Jesus died on a cross, which doesn't sound like a proper reward for
a life well-lived.
            What do we learn about God's rewards from the cross?

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