Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Tonight’s gospel lesson is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Here, Jesus tells us things like, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them…” (Matthew 6:1).
And, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets...But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matthew 6:2-4) And, “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others...But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen…” (Matthew 6:5-6).
And “[w]hen you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do...But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting…” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Now, if we read Jesus’ words superficially, we might think that He’s contradicting something He said to His followers--including you and me--just one chapter earlier. There, Jesus says, “...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) In this verse, Jesus is telling us to live our faith in Him and our love for Him out loud, “let-everyone-see-the-good-we-do-in-His-name” loud.
Yet, in tonight’s lesson, He tells us to: give to help the poor, just don’t announce it to the world; live with a right respect for the God Who saves us by grace through faith in Jesus, just don’t call attention to your righteousness; pray for everyone, just don’t call attention to your praying; fast, just don’t let anyone see what you’re sacrificing.
So, which is it: Live your faith loudly in the public square or refuse to call attention to your own faithfulness?
The answer, friends, is both.
We are to live out our faith in Jesus out loud for all the world to see. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)
That means living our gratitude to God for saving us from sin and death by the faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ that His Holy Spirit and His Word have created within us.
It means trusting in Christ to love God completely, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to love each other in the Church with the same devotion Christ showed for us on the cross, to live each day in the light of Jesus’ resurrection promise.
And it will mean giving to the poor, praying for others--including our enemies, fasting from--that is avoiding--those things that can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus, and telling others about the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who follow Jesus.
But we also are not to live out our faith to call attention to ourselves. When I’m out to dinner and I pray over my meal--and I realize that at the Famous Restaurant in Centerville last night, sitting there in my clerical collar, I forgot to pray--but when I do pray over my meal in a public place, I’m to do it not for any audience around me, but for an audience of One: the God I know in Jesus. When I fast, I'm not to do it so that I can create an impression on others. When I give to the poor, I'm not to do it with an eye to how good it makes me look to the world, only to honor the God Who gives me everything I have.
It all boils down to motivation.
Do we do the things that Jesus commands--things like love God, love neighbor, make disciples, worship with God’s people every week--to point to Jesus or to point to ourselves?
Do we do the things that Jesus commends--things like praying, giving to the poor, fasting--to give Jesus control over our lives or just to control what others think of us?
Listen: You can get the whole world convinced that you are the most wonderful, devoted, loving, faithful follower of Jesus by doing the kinds of play-acting Jesus condemns in tonight’s lesson. You can be known for your generosity, your beautiful-sounding prayers, your notorious fasting from the pleasures of the world. But if your motive in all these and other religious acts is anything other than honoring the God Who saves you through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, God is not impressed.
In fact, God will condemn us for using Him to build up our reputations at Christ’s expense. Hebrews 4:13 reminds us, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
You cannot fool God! That’s why our motivation is so important.
Let’s be honest though.
None of us acts from purely pristine or holy motives. My sinful nature reminds me that when I pray in a restaurant, others may see me doing it. As long as I live on this earth, the old Adam in me will try to mess up everything.
Compelled by Jesus’ grace love and empowered by the Holy Spirit, I’ll do something for another person without a thought of how it may look to others...until later, I think, “That’s a really good thing I did.”
And it happens to preachers too. In the weeks before virtually every Sunday for the past thirty-five-plus years, Ann can tell you, I have agonized over what God wanted me to say in my sermons. Deep inside, I know that I have nothing to say. I offer up desperate, pleading prayers to God to help me discern what I should tell you about His Word for that week. God has always been faithful; He has always given me what I should say, even when I get in God's way while I preach. I always thank God for giving me a sermon. But it takes just one person to tell me, "Good sermon," and I'm thinking to myself, "Wow! I really am good."
So, our motives for doing the things God calls us to do always get clouded by our sinful selves.
But just because the devil, the world, and our sinful selves constantly remind us that our motives aren’t totally pure doesn’t mean that we should refrain from living our faith in Jesus for all the world to see.
Don’t be afraid to live your faith out loud!
Don’t be afraid tonight to stop at a store or somewhere else with the ashy cross still on your forehead.
The apostle Peter tells Christians, “...in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
As we begin Lent on this Ash Wednesday, 2020, I’d like to ask you to consider doing the following things, not as works to earn God's favor, but as ways to open your heart and life to Jesus working and living within you.
- 1. Ask Jesus to help you follow Him more closely.
- 2. Ask Jesus to help you live for Him more devotedly and openly.
- 3. Ask Jesus to keep your motives for your acts of devotion focused on Him and not on yourself, to grow closer to Him and not to impress others.
- 4. Ask Jesus for forgiveness and help when you see your motives turn selfish.
- 5. As you repent and put yourself in Jesus’ hands, know that you belong to God, not because of anything you do, but totally because of what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross.
- 6. Ask God to daily remind you that, by grace through faith in Christ, You belong to the God Whose opinion of you is infinitely and eternally more important than what anyone else may think of you! (Even more important than what you think of you.)
In this Lenten season, may God plant within each of us a deepened desire to honor Him Who, in Jesus Christ, has given us everlasting life with God, a treasure greater than anything--including the good opinions of others--that this dying universe could ever give us.
May we repent and trust in Jesus in response to the Word and the Sacraments and may we learn to trust Jesus always. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]