Most people agree that religion in the public sphere can be a problem and Jesus agrees, but the problem he sees is different than what we might expect. What is that problem and how can we solve it?
Let’s explore pure religion which involves acts of love to God and neighbor, and let’s examine our motives.
We will look Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and Jesus’ discussion of religious duties.
Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 5 “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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
1. What’s the Problem with Public Giving?
Jesus said to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16), but then he said not to practice our righteousness in front of others in order to be seen by them (Matthew 6:1). Is there a contradiction? The key is our motive. Is our purpose to show off or give God the glory? If our desire is to toot our own horns, better to give anonymously. If our motive it to glorify our Father in heaven or that others may believe (John 11:41-42) then that is good. If we are in doubt about our motive, it may be better to give in secret.
What’s the Problem with Public Prayers?
Why did Jesus teach us to pray in private rather than show off? He prayed in public. But, his motive was that they may believe (Matthew 14:19; John 11:41-42). Our public prayers may never be totally devoid of wrong motives. We hear public prayers that sound manipulative, gossipy, long and tedious shows, trite, irrelevant, repetitive and self-righteous. Yet, prayer is very important. Churches are houses of prayer. But, Jesus taught us not to pray like hypocrites whose motives are to be seen by others. Public prayer is a necessary and difficult task for imperfect humans. So, we pray in humility knowing that our thoughts will not be perfect like Jesus’ and we must overlook each other’s faulty prayers.
What’s the Problem with Public Fasting?
Fasting has been used for religious purposes, political manipulation and weight control. Health benefits of fasting are disputed. Some consider fasting to be pathological rather than beneficial. Jesus enters the debate by saying that Christians certainly do fast, but should not do so in a hypocritical, showy fashion. After Jesus fasted we are told that he was hungry, not thirsty. It is apparent that he did take fluids. Those 40 days gave rise to the Christian tradition of Lent, a period of prayer, abstinence and almsgiving before Resurrection Sunday. Most Christians do not fast as Jesus did, but abstain from something that is symbolic of fasting. Throughout the year, Christians take an occasional day to fast and pray in private.
What is Our Best Investment?
Wealth is not an indicator of our spiritual condition. Jesus said not to store up wealth on earth but with God. He reorients us away from a lifestyle of acquisitions. Our society worships those who have stored up wealth on earth. Jesus taught the opposite, to give to the needy, pay generous wages, and make fair business deals. Nobody needs a billion dollars. Where our money is, indicates where our hearts are. We must make a choice. Do we use money as a tool for good, or do we worship it as an idol? How we invest our treasures on earth is directly linked to how great our reward in eternity will be. Are we investing in heaven or earth?
Pure religion involves charitable giving, but it also involves prayer and fasting. Jesus recommends that we take a close look at our hearts and our motives for what we do.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. Print.
Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. Print.