“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.” (Matthew 1:6)
Remember when you were a teenager? You were about to go out on a big date. You were all dressed up for the occasion and looking forward to the excitement of the evening. There you were admiring yourself one last time before the hallway mirror. Dad was sitting in his easy chair with his legs propped up on the ottoman holding the remote, clicking channels to update himself on the day’s news.
You didn’t even notice him until you subconsciously realized the TV had been muted and you heard Dad’s nagging voice prick your balloon of self-confidence as he complained, “Why don’t you ever stand up straight? Go on, pull back your shoulders, straighten up your posture!”
Although you may not have had quite that same experience, I’m certain that at some time you have had your posture corrected. It may have been in your junior high health education class or in the high school gym dance lessons, at the doctor’s office or in military drill.
Good posture is a basic ingredient for happy living. A person with a slouch needs to be straightened up.
I’d like to talk about a different posture–your religious posture.
Have you checked your spiritual posture recently?
We’ve just read Matthew 6:1-18. It is a portion from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking to people like you and me about our religious posture. He’s talking about the way we stand before God as persons who claim to be religious. He is analyzing our stance. He is warning us to straighten up.
Jesus is talking to His disciples, to those of us who have committed our lives to Him in faith. He’s warning about how easy it is to become religious hunchbacks–men and women whose profession of faith is sound but whose profiles are those of the spiritually arthritic.
I’d like to raise three questions this morning in an endeavor to tease us into a greater understanding of healthy religion, a stand-tall-and-straight posture before God and the world.
Question #1: Just what is this slouch?
Answer: Jesus is talking out against self-centered, hypocritical, show-off religion, which He singles out as the crippler of religious posture.
He says, “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” (Matthew 6:1).
There were three great religious practices that were held by the Jews of ancient times and were endorsed by Jesus. They were the activities of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The truly religious person engaged in all three of these activities, which issued from one’s own personal relationship with God. Even though Jesus Christ highly endorsed these three activities, He illustrates what He means by “practicing your piety before others” by painting three vivid pictures describing contemporary religious practices. These pictures are caricatures, persons who were doing the right things but with the wrong motivation. Jesus is clever in His use of exaggeration to drive home a point to sensitive people like you and me.
Caricature one is the Almsgiver.
This person is active in charity. He or she is a very generous person. There’s only one problem. This generosity stems from a desire for attention and prestige. It doesn’t mean the person has no interest in their fellow humans and their own relationship with God. Jesus is saying that the primary motivation is to strut, to be seen by others.
Jesus narrows in with these words, “‘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'” (Matthew 6:2-4).
At times, there are severe shortages of drinking water and, during these times, a person is forced to buy water to drink. You and I have little appreciation for fresh water. We’ve always had it in abundance. Travel to a drought-stricken area of the world and you’ll develop a whole new appreciation. I’ve paid as much as $10.00 a bottle for clean drinking water while traveling through the deserts of the Middle East. You have seen the priceless nature of fresh water and the horrendous conditions of New Orleans; and people clamoring to stay above the flood line are dehydrated, even dying from dehydration. What riveted our attention on the TV screens only illustrates that classic line, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!”
The story is told about an old Middle East custom. In biblical times, a wealthy person who wanted to be well thought of in the community for his generosity and charity would go to a water merchant and pay for him to distribute water to the poor in the streets who could not afford a cup to quench their thirst. This person of charity, the “Almsgiver,” would stand beside the water merchant, proudly basking in his generosity and requesting that each recipient of this kindness would offer up a blessing in honor of his good name. He wanted recognition.
This is self-righteousness, the tendency to do good so that you can be seen by others as a charitable person.
Perhaps this can be updated. Have you ever sizably increased your annual pledge to the church, not because of your deep concern for its progressing ministry, but because you want to be well thought of as a person of generosity? Have you ever doubled or tripled what you intended to give Hoag Hospital or some other major charity because someone you knew was doing the solicitation? A major motivating factor in charitable fund raising is to send a peer, better still a friend, to someone to collect their major gift pledge. This is referred to as the “shame factor,” or better still the “ego motivation.”
Do you ever sit up a bit taller and give a flourish as you wave your offering envelope into the plate?
University presidents have found that the most effective way to raise funds is to promise that a building will be named in the honor of the giver. Human pride becomes a significant part of the motivation.
Jesus is not speaking against charity. On the contrary, He’s calling for it. He is calling for a motive that is pure of the desire for attention and prestige. He says that when you do some act of charity, you are not to announce it with a flourish of trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the streets to win admiration and reward from others. No! Instead, you’re not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Your deed must be one of pure, secret motivation, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Caricature two is that of the Prayer.
This is a person who loves to get up in front of everybody and be seen in their religious posture.
Jesus puts it in these words: “‘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'” (Matthew 6:5-6).
Jesus isn’t saying that there is no place for public prayer. He’s talking about motivation. This illustration hits home, especially to those of us who are in full-time pastoral ministry. We are paid to give beautiful prayers and pleasing sermons, neither of which will you find as a priority in Scripture. Pray, yes. Preach, yes. But you’ll never see the Bible mention “beautiful” prayers and “pleasing” sermons. How easy it is for me to be thinking of what your reactions are to my sermons and to compare myself to other more scintillating and inspirational rhetoricians, while, at the same time, I am claiming to be communicating the Word of God in sincerity, with conviction. How sad it is when I shift gears, wondering what you will think of my prayers, instead of genuinely communicating our mutual heart cry to God. Little did the sophisticated worshiper, leaving a fashionable New England church on a Sunday morning, realize the depth of insight in her enthusiastic response to the minister’s morning pastoral prayer. She said to her friend, “Wasn’t that the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience?”
Jesus probes away at this tendency as He says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
Your and my rhetoric may be elaborate. We can put all the right words together and still be spiritually deficient, arthritic in our posture.
Caricature three is that of the Faster.
This is the one who gives up certain luxuries to give the appearance of self-sacrifice and superior piety. This is still not as widespread a practice today as it was in biblical times. I urge you to consider going a day or two without food. It’s good for you spiritually, plus it has tremendous physical ramifications. Some of us will give up something for Lent, although this custom is rapidly dying. Usually we give up something that is not too good for us anyway. We’re the ones who profit in the process.
Jesus said, “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 6:16-18).
One of the things that sometimes comes out of the closest in modern life to what Jesus was talking about is the attitude that some of us bring to our worship. At times, we pride ourselves on what we have given up so as to take the time to go to church and be active in Christian work. Are you quite aware right now that you’re sacrificing a morning in bed? Your chores have been set back by coming to St. Andrew’s. You’ve given up a relaxed morning with the Sunday paper in the comfort of shorts and a polo shirt.
In ancient times, the person who was fasting actually advertised the fact. He would paint his face so that it looked disfigured and emaciated. Jesus said that the person who wants to get attention for such acts of self-sacrifice receives it from other people, not from God. Strutting ones piety discounts his effectiveness.
So you see, your slouch is your constant bent toward self-centered, hypocritical religion. And I’ll be the first to admit it is as easy to slip into such a self-centered spiritual posture as it is to slump physically in one’s pew during the Sunday morning sermon. Jesus has exaggerated the picture to press home His point. Let’s face it, this kind of Christianity turns people off, doesn’t it? You and I are the first to admit it!
Question #2: Just what is the corrective to this slouching religious posture?
Answer: The answer is that of getting the proper or healthful perspective on your religious practices.
It’s almost impossible for you and me to straighten ourselves out by strong effort. The corrective that Jesus offers is that not of exercise but of perspective. He rebuked those of His day who labored on in endless prayers, crying out for the blessing of God. Instead, Jesus pointed out that God is aware of all your needs; and your responsibility is purely that of offering yourself to Him so that He can meet them.
Jesus illustrated His corrective by telling us how to pray. We must realize that this prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer, is really the “disciple’s prayer.” It is designed for those of us who are followers of Jesus, His disciples. It is a pattern to bring about a better perspective on our part about our relationship with God. It is a crisp, sharp and concise corrective. It sets up the proper priorities for our relationship with God.
A couple of years ago, I preached a whole series on the Lord’s Prayer. It has now just come out in printed form in a book, available in our church bookstore, entitled Forgive Us Our Prayers. Obviously, I can’t repreach that whole book this morning. Simply stated, Jesus points out that our first concern in religion is with our personal relationship with the eternal, living God. Once this is in proper perspective, you and I are then called to concern ourselves with our own personal affairs and our relationship with our fellow human beings, which we carry on here in the temporal zone.
I used to think that, if a person was right with God, they would automatically be concerned about the welfare of their fellow human beings. In fact, I’ve preached sermons on how, after our vertical relationship is corrected, we then reach forth in a horizontal concern. I’m not now certain that the two come in automatic sequence. If it were so, I wonder why the Bible would spend so much time talking about our human responsibility to other people, as well as our responsibility to God. We see this in the Ten Commandments. The first four deal specifically with our relationship to God; the last six deal with our person-to-person responsibilities. Jesus worked the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.
He stressed the eternal in the words we so often lightly mouth. He urged His disciples to pray like this (Matthew 6:9-10):
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.”
In the fifth century after Christ, St. Augustine preached one of the classic sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. He noted in the first part of this prayer, we are not asking that all these things be done. It would be presumptuous for you and me to ask that God’s name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, that His will be done. These will all come to pass whether you and I pray for them or not. Our prayer is that we may be identified with the eternal work of God. Our prayer is that we will be caught up in His plan for all life. When you and I grasp the grandeur of this eternal perspective, when you and I are transformed by this divine romance, then you and I have experienced Christ’s corrective for our religious posture.
Once you and I have come into identification with God’s eternal plan by the surrender of ourselves to Him, then we have the thrilling opportunity to turn our temporal worldly affairs over to Him. You and I are to live in the authentic posture of forgiveness and concern for our fellow human beings. You and I are to claim God’s direction for our lives.
His corrective is His invitation to have confidence in His eternal plan. In this confidence of the eternal, you and I will find freedom from our oppressive bondage of trying to build a hypocritical religious front before others.
It doesn’t take a great saint to recognize slouching religious posture. J.D. Salinger, in his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, puts these words into the mouth of his primary character Holden Caulfield, “If you do something good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good anymore.”
Dale Bruner in his classic two-volume commentary on Matthew, says that, in Matthew 5, Jesus taught mainly the what of the Christian life. In Matthew 6, He teaches the how of Christian living.
Bruner writes, “It is important that persons not only do what is right but that they do it in the right way. Righteousness that is overly conscious of itself, love impressed with its sacrifice, mercy seeking attention, or purity done for show are all unrighteousness. And Christian life that looks mainly to willpower for its resources and not, for example, to the Lord’s Prayer, is doomed to frustration.”
Bruner succinctly addresses this whole matter of proper perspective in the following pithy juxtaposition of Bad Practices/Bad Rewards versus Good Practices/Good Rewards. Take a moment to seriously contemplate these.
The Bad Practices: Flashy Charity, Flashy Praying, Flashy Fasting;
The Bad Rewards: The “Flashy Righteous” have all the reward they are ever going to get–the praise of others.
The Good Practices: Secret Charity, Secret Praying, Secret Fasting;
The Good Rewards: The “Secret Righteous” will get an exciting reward from the Father who sees secret things.
You and I have a wonderful opportunity to do a reality check on our religious posture. The grid, how we respond to the overwhelming human needs left in the wake of hurricane Katrina. We’ve issued a four-point call for our response as a congregation to this tragedy. First, we’ve called for prayer. Second, we’ve called for direct giving to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Three, we’ve asked for giving through St. Andrew’s to the Hurricane Katrina Fund that will help our sister churches dispense help and also help those churches and brothers and sisters in Christ who have been devastated by the storm. Fourth, we’ve issued a call for those who could give hands-on help to be in touch with Laura Johnson of our staff, as she and her team familiarize themselves with what human resources we can be at this end, and even, ultimately, perhaps by traveling to serve on site.
In the midst of all this, many of you have come to the front, volunteering money, time, and talent, as your hearts have been touched by what you’ve seen.
Our church, last January, in response to the tsunami tragedy, contributed over $300,000 recorded cash through our church and much more given directly to the relief agencies. The pump was primed by one of our couples who gave a $50,000 up-front, no strings attached gift and chose to remain anonymous at that time. They have rallied once again with a pump-primer cash gift, channeled through St. Andrew’s, of $100,000. They made one very clear specification. They must remain anonymous. This is their way of doing a spiritual, religious posture check in what could so quickly become a high profile public strutting example of all three caricatures: the almsgiver who gives with public display; the prayer who struts with spiritual motivation; and the faster who makes a big deal of the sacrifice, including everything they can’t do because of such a substantial gift.
Well, let us conclude by addressing Question #3: What is the quality of correct religious posture?
Answer: These three words.
First, correct religious posture has the quality of humility.
It’s not the life of pious egotism. Nothing is more pitiful than the person who is so driven by the inner desire for recognition that he thinks only of ways to build himself in the eyes of others. Jean-Baptiste Clamence in the novel titled The Fall by Albert Camus makes the confession of those of us who are caught up in ourselves. He says,
“I have to admit it humbly . . ., I was always bursting with vanity. I, I, I, is the refrain of my whole life, which could be heard in everything I said. I could never talk without boasting, especially if I did so with that shattering discretion that was my specialty … When I was concerned with others, it was so out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self-esteem would go up a degree.”
How contrary are the words of Alfred Plummer who makes this comment on our attempt to build ourselves in the eyes of others:
“The light of a Christian character will shine before men and win glory for God without the artificial aid of public advertisement. Ostentatious religion may have its reward here, but it receives none from God.”
The church gives us a ready-made stage on which you and I can start doing our religious acting.
This has a very serious application to those of us here at St. Andrew’s. God has given us a rich heritage. Quickly we can become pharisaical in our attitude. We can boast about our orthodoxy. We can pride ourselves in our faithfulness to the Scriptures. We can condescendingly point our fingers at those who cannot affirm some of the great doctrines of the Christian faith and, in the process, we can be guilty of self-righteous legalism. We can be arrogant with the power that we have in our presbytery and prideful that over $2 million of our budget goes to mission outside of our local efforts. We can view our tradition of worship as being superior to those who have “no real sense of worship.”
God wants us to stand firm to our convictions. We are to search the Scriptures diligently. We are to stand firm in our faith. We are to be generous with others. And, for God’s sake and ours, we must not present a spiritually crippled profile to the world. Ours must not be a cocky self-assurance in which we strut, showing how pious we are in our almsgiving, our prayers and our fasting.
Second, correct religious posture has the quality of sincerity.
It does not to go through a religious ritual like Jesus said the heathen do when they turn their prayer wheels. We don’t mouth the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer without thinking about what we’re saying. How often we are so lazy that we fail to be sincere as we thoughtlessly sing the words of hymns and worship choruses? How many of us have, in full sincerity, taken advantage of today’s time of worship to really worship God and concentrate on Him? How easy it is to cradle one’s head in one’s hand, elbows propped against the knees to catch a brief snooze during the pastoral prayer. How easy it is to flip our offering envelope into the plate as it goes by. How often we fail to concentrate on that gift that represents our stewardship of every good and perfect gift that comes from God. How often do we follow that offering along with all the others, prayerfully, thoughtfully, as we know this week it will flesh itself out in some mission enterprise in some ministry of caring?
During the sermon, how often we dare the preacher to say something stimulating. How quickly our minds drift off. The world’s greatest preacher can, on any given Sunday, leave us empty, turn us off, if we’ve not prayed for that person and come asking for God’s message. The pastor with the most average gifts who faithfully opens God’s Word will always have a message for you, if you come prayerfully prepared to concentrate on the Word. Preaching is an almost impossible task. Think about it. A person steps into the pulpit and has to say something from the Bible in a way to relate meaningfully to the tremendous diversity represented in the congregation. It takes great concentration, not only on the part of the preacher but on your part. Even the Apostle Paul sometimes preached in a way that put people to sleep. Luke describes Paul preaching one evening at Troas. He tells about a young man by the name of Eutychus sitting by a third-story open window. As Paul talked, Eutychus fell sound asleep and fell out of the window and was taken up for dead.
Come to worship in total concentration, filled with deep sincerity. There’s no one that the world is quicker to point a finger at than a hypocrite. When you and I go through our religious forms playing church, Jesus would call us “whitened sepulchres.” They are whitewashed tombs made to look pretty on the outside, but filled with rotten, decaying, stinking matter on the inside.
Third, correct religious posture has the quality of radiance.
It doesn’t confine itself to the darkened sanctuary and the quiet cloister. It is not a life of gloomy self-sacrifice or pious masochism. Instead, it is a life of radiant giving to others. It is a life that carries itself with gusto on the high school football practice field. It is a life of dynamic involvement in sorority and fraternity life on the college campus. It is a life of energetic activity in the political and civic affairs of this city. It is a life of bouyant social activity in business involvement. It is a life of creative radiant living that makes no apology for its strong convictions that differ from the ethics of many involved in those same activities. It is participation right in the midst of the world with a dynamic commitment to the One who claims to be the Lord of all human society.
So often we Christians have presented a “sad-sack” image to the world. We have a way of looking miserable. We give a crippled appearance. We’re so bent over with problems that people fail to see reflected in us the understanding that Jesus Christ came to give abundant life. Yes, we’ll have our burdens. The Christian life isn’t easy, but it is life.
A young woman came to me and asked, “Why do Christians look so sad? I would think that, if what the Bible says is true, you would be a joyous people.” Why is it that we paint our faces with those chalky white shades used by the fasting Pharisees. Jesus calls us to radiance in our sacrifices. Sharing with others to the point of pain is something not to be displayed before others. We have faces that are washed, heads that are anointed. You and I are called to be men and women not with a soupy sentimental reality of life-denying piety but with that authentic radiance that comes from knowing whose we are and why we’re here and where we’re going.
Let us live with humility, sincerity and radiance, standing in awe in a spiritual posture, in healthy, authentic, honest relationship with God and each other!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.