|RPM, Volume 20, Number 8, February 18 to February 24, 2018|
I have a good friend, an individual that I know quite well, whose every good deed I am aware of. I'm not sure why, but this person makes a point of telling me about every good deed they perform—about every contribution they make to charity, about all the extra Christmas presents they bought, about how they helped out "so-and-so" again. I am always a bit confused as to why I am brought up-to-date on these "good deeds" and I sometimes think of this verse in Mt. 6, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven" (v.1).
Now those of you who remember last week's sermon may be wondering, "Isn't that the opposite of what chapter 5, verse 16 says?". In the text we are studying today, we are warned against "practicing (our) righteousness before men", but the whole point of last week's text seems to be just the opposite: "LET your light shine before men in such away that they may SEE your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven".
How do we reconcile these two verses? The distinguishing phrase is found in 6:1, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men TO BE NOTICED BY THEM". In chapter 5, good works are done with the motivation of glorifying GOD, but in chapter 6, the warning is against good works meant to glorify the PERSON.
The idea is that the disciple's good works SHOULD be visible, but ONLY for the glory of God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were doing their good works visibly, but in order to be noticed by the people. The good works may be the same, but at the end of the day, what Jesus cares about is our MOTIVATION for doing good. Are we trying to impress others? Or are we trying to impress God? People are always telling me, "You can't please all of the people all of the time". And my usual reply to this is, "True. And that is why I have to focus on PLEASING GOD instead".
"Pleasing God"—chapter 6 has a great deal to say about pleasing God—the type of things God expects from disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus begins with the practice of "giving alms" in verse 2. "Giving alms" refers, of course, to helping the poor. It is listed ahead of prayer and fasting, not necessarily because it is the most important item, but because Jesus had just spoken on the need to give to "him who asks" in chapter 5 (v.42).
The phrase, "Do not sound a trumpet" (v.2) is likely a metaphor for calling attention to one's self. I don't think this is something Presbyterians are traditionally guilty of. Far from showing off, or sounding trumpets, Presbyterians tend to be a very secretive bunch when it comes to money—maybe too secretive, if there is such a thing. Our practice of a public offering holds us accountable for giving, yet our use of envelopes rightly conceals the amount given. No one knows if you have a $5 bill or a $50 bill in that envelope. No one gets embarrassed and no one swells up with pride.
The problem Jesus had with the Pharisees, however, wasn't with their generosity, but with the MANNER in which they gave. The Pharisees were generous, but they did it to show off, to be "honoured by men" (v.2). Jesus promises that is the only reward they will get—the praise of the people.
Jesus calls us, His disciples, to give "in secret" (v.4). How secret? Jesus uses a humorous example to drive His point home: "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (v.3).
When we give in secret, Jesus promises that our Father "who sees in secret will repay you" (v.4). Jesus reminds us here that God is omniscient—He sees "in secret"—He sees everything. That is a well-known theological statement, yet how many of us are conscious of God's presence every minute of the day? There's an old analogy: How would you behave if the Pope or the Queen came to visit you at your home? Would it change the way you spoke to your spouse or children? Well, Almighty God visits with us all day long—is it making a difference in your life? Remember, "your Father who sees in secret will repay you".
Jesus then moves from "giving alms" to "prayer" in verse 5. Again Jesus warns against being like the "hypocrites"—a term used for actors who wore masks—the hypocrites prayed "on the street corners IN ORDER TO BE SEEN BY MEN". "They have their reward in full" Jesus says. They have received the praise from the people, and that is all they are getting—that is their only reward.
Jesus calls His disciples once again to secrecy, "go into your inner room" and "pray to your Father who is in secret". As clergy, this is a warning I need to give special attention to. Are my prayers limited to what I do here, publicly, on Sunday? Or am I faithful in praying throughout the week in private? The question you need to ask yourselves is, are you praying only when giving thanks for a meal with your family? Or are you praying privately, at other times, also? Jesus calls you and I to pray, not only publicly, but also privately. Jesus promises again that when you do, "your Father who sees in secret will repay you" (v.6).
Jesus' teaching on deeds done in secret is briefly interrupted in order to teach His disciples how to pray. We, however, will leave that particular text for another day, moving on to the third thing disciples of Christ should do in secret—fasting. Notice that I used the word "should"—disciples of Christ SHOULD FAST. I say that because Jesus ASSUMES we will fast. In verse 16, He says, "WHENEVER you fast".
It is probably safe to say that this is the most neglected Christian practice of our time. Admittedly, I fall into this category as I have only fasted a handful of times in my life. And in my experience of talking with others, there are a great many Christians who have NEVER fasted.
When should we fast? Well, in the New Testament fasting is associated with grieving(Mt.9:14,15), with prayer(Mt.17:21), and with seeking the Lord's will(Acts 13:2,3; 14:23). You could say that fasting is appropriate whenever one is in spiritual anguish—whenever you find yourself exclaiming, "What am I going to do?!"—that is a good time to fast.
What is the goal of fasting? I can tell you, first of all, what it is NOT. The goal of fasting is NOT, as Jesus points out, impressing others by demonstrating how religious you are. And while fasting does please God, this should NOT be the goal of fasting. It should not be the goal of any of the three disciplines. God does not NEED our money, our prayers, or our fasting. The reason we give money, pray, and fast is to help us. Yes, help us. It sounds strange—we benefit by giving money away Who would agree with that? But it's true. We benefit by portioning a half hour of each day to pray. And it's we who benefit by going without food in order to spend time seeking God's will.
These 3 things done in secret: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are for our good, not God's. They are meant to teach US utter dependence on God for everything we need. And when we turn to God in this way, we please our heavenly Father.
So the goal of giving, prayer, and fasting is to become more like Christ—and this, of course, pleases God.
After challenging His disciples to give, pray, and fast in secret, Jesus gives them one more exhortation: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (v.19,20).
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth"—now there is something we are all guilty of. At the very least, we are all ATTEMPTING to build up our treasures while here on earth. Most of us have our GIC's and our RRSP's waiting for that "rainy day". Now it must be said, Jesus is not condemning the wealthy here—He is condemning those who prioritize wealth above all else. The poor can be guilty of this also. Jesus is talking about priorities here. In verse 24, He uses the analogy of a servant and a master. Is the accumulation of wealth our primary concern, our master? Or is conformity to the will of God our PRIMARY concern?
Leo Tolstoy told a story about a peasant who was offered all the land he could walk around in one day. All the land he could walk around in one day. The man hurried to get around as much as possible, but his exertion was so great he fell dead just as he got back to where he had begun. He ended with nothing. And that is precisely what material desire produces in the end—nothing. The problem with desiring money is not that we desire too much, but that WE DESIRE TOO LITTLE. We need something more valuable than money. For the money we earn and save now will do us no good in eternity.
However, the giving, the praying, and the fasting we do now will count for something in eternity. Jesus urges us to "lay up for (ourselves) treasures in heaven" (v.20). How do we get those treasures in heaven? I want to return your attention to the last sentence in verses 4, 6, and 18. The sentence is IDENTICAL in all three: "your Father who sees in secret will REPAY YOU". So what will He repay us with? What is our reward for giving, praying, and fasting? Our reward is the same as the goal—to know and do the will of God as Jesus did. Giving, praying, fasting is NOT simply a the means to satisfy another kind of greed for eternal treasure. Giving, praying, fasting is NOT a vending machine for blessings from above. Giving, praying, fasting, CHANGES US. Giving, praying, fasting, molds us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
In heaven we will be like Christ in righteousness. The goal now is Christ-likeness and the treasure later is Christ-likeness. The command and the treasure is the same thing. "Be like Christ" is the command. "You WILL be like Christ" is the reward. Giving, praying, fasting, helps us to get there. Just as an athlete must lift weights and do exercises to prepare for a competition, so we too must do our spiritual exercises of giving, praying, and fasting to prepare for our eternal dwelling place.
Jesus goes on to say that, "Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also" (v.21). That statement is our clue. Are we spending more time calculating our income or praying to God? If the answer to that question isn't praying then maybe our treasure of priority is our earthly treasure. Sure, we may all profess to prioritize our heavenly treasure of being like Christ, but does the management of our time and efforts reflect that? Does our heart, our actions, give us away?
The truth is, our heavenly treasure is infinitely more valuable than our earthly treasures. The difficulty is that earthly treasures are more tangible. Our heavenly treasures won't send us to Europe, pay our bills, or send our children to College. At least with our earthly treasures we are able to measure progress. That is why we Christians have to talk about FAITH. We can't always see, smell, and taste our progress towards the heavenly treasure, but we MUST have faith in it. And the way we build our faith is through GIVING, PRAYING, and FASTING.
May God strengthen you as you desire His heavenly treasure. Amen.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor. If you would like to discuss this article in our online community, please visit the RPM Forum.|
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