Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18
Jesus has taught us the way of fulfilment, and told us how to be blessed. He has taught us the way of perfection, and told us how righteous we must be.
Now he teaches us the way of freedom. He tells us how to be free.
Freedom is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” In the sense that every body is under the law of gravity, none of us are free to act contrary to gravity. So you aren’t free.
What then is this freedom of which Jesus talks? Of course he sets us free from sin. He releases us from captivity.
But in verses two, five and sixteen Jesus says he wants to set us free from hypocrisy. He wants to set us free from human religion. And he teaches us using three examples of religiosity.
He sounds the alarm immediately in verse one, saying first: “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.”
If you do your religious deeds in public to be admired, watch out because you will lose your blessing. You will lose the blessing that comes from being poor in spirit. You will lose your relationship with God.
He says this two more times regarding prayer and fasting. This establishes a clear pattern of three and reinforces the message. And the message seems to be rebel, go against the grain, refuse to conform to the normal pattern of religion. Do not be like the hypocrites!
He doesn’t say to stop doing these things. Jesus says do them in a hidden way so that your father in heaven is the only one who sees them. The wrong way to do any religious duty is with a fanfare, with announcements and posters. Not only was this common in the time of Jesus, we still come across it.
It seems to be built into our nature, which perhaps is why Jesus needs to make such a big point about it. We often start well, with good intentions, but then gradually veer toward conceit and self-interest.
How can you be free? Jesus says, Don’t tell anyone how much you donate to the church. Just give generously and secretly.
How can you be free? Jesus says, Don’t make a show of praying. Yes, pray often and urgently. Pray on a street corner if you must. But don’t do any of the things that religious people do to bring attention to their prayers.
When you pray during this service, for example, don’t adopt a special voice. Have you noticed people sometimes have a special voice for saying prayers. Or they have a special vocabulary and begin to use words that they would never use in normal conversation. Perhaps they say things like ‘thou art holy’ instead of ‘you are holy’ and they ask for ‘travelling mercies’ instead of ‘safe travel’.
As for fasting, maybe this happens less often because we fast less often. But still people can manage to point to themselves as being religious by blatantly attending a dinner party and then announcing that they are fasting and cannot eat.
Where is your heart? Are you giving generously, praying diligently and fasting for your own benefit or for God’s sake? Who are you serving?
The problem with the hypocrites was that they wanted recognition. Jesus said that as soon as they got the recognition they craved, they lost the recognition of God. How sad.
Jesus is pointing us toward the freedom to engage in spirituality that please God. He is giving us the freedom to stop trying to please others. And also telling us to stop pleasing ourselves. Don’t desire recognition for your work.
True spirituality seeks the way of maximum hiddenness.
True spirituality needs to have hidden depths.
True spirituality should actively conceal the cost of discipleship.
Jesus keeps repeating that God is unseen and we must perform our spiritual acts in secret. When our true motivation is to live like this, we shall discover the freedom to ignore the criticism of those people who demand public displays of religiosity. We shall be free to be different.
This is the route by which we live out the characteristics defined in the beatitudes. This is what it looks like to hunger and thirst after righteousness and to be poor in spirit.
This is the way to a life of true blessing. Jesus doesn’t define this blessing, but we know from elsewhere that he is talking about a deep and close relationship with God the father and with Jesus the son and with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has not given us these teachings so that we can be alert to hypocrites. We do not have permission to condemn others whom we suspect are hypocrites.
This teaching is so that you can examine yourself. You are under the divine microscope. Have you begun to drift in the wrong direction with regard to your spiritual life? How much of your prayer is offered in public and how much in private?
Jesus wants you to pray in public, in the worship service, speaking in a normal voice and using normal words. But he wants this to be the public tip of a private iceberg. Most of your prayer should be done in private. If the only time you pray is in public, you need to examine yourself. If you don’t pray in public or in private you also are in need of some self-criticism.
Jesus wants you to give generously to the poor, but without telling anyone. If your best friend thinks you never give, that is fine. God is the only one who needs to know.
Do you fast but no one knows about it? Good, keep it that way. Most fasting these days is called dieting and is far from secret. It is also being done for entirely the wrong reasons. Any benefits will be limited to this life. I don’t mean it’s wrong to diet.
We have to keep checking that we aren’t drifting into the way of human religion. We have to keep bringing ourselves back to the way of secret spirituality. This is Jesus’ way of being free.
We are free from the need to publicly perform. We are free from the need to meet public standards. We are free from the need to please others, because we please God. We are free from hypocrisy.
We are set free from the bondage of keeping up religious appearances.
You have to make it the governing priority in your life to please your father in secret.
True spirituality is for God’s eyes only. Stop worrying what anyone else thinks. You’ve got to please God, not man.
And what pleases God is when you are generous in giving, when you seek him out in secret and spend a long time talking with him, and when you fast quietly.
This is something you can start right now. There is no need to wait.
When we come to open prayer in a minute, you can pray one sentence in normal everyday words. You don’t need to worry that someone thinks you didn’t use special religious words. Only remember that God wants you to pray simple prayers from the heart. Then you can please him.
Let’s examine ourselves this week, and seek to please God. The your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.