"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
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 men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
The first Valentine’s Day after Lori and I got married was one of the biggest fights of our married life. I knew, like every man should, that it was important to get the love of his life something special for Valentine’s Day.
Problem was...I had no idea what to get her.
I had two motives: 1. I wanted it to be special and 2. I wanted it to be something she wanted.
So I got what I thought was a great idea. Instead of going shopping for a gift, I decided to wait until she got home and take her shopping for her gift. This way she got what she wanted and I didn’t buy the wrong thing.
Here is how this thing went down in my mind. I would explain my idea to her, she would exclaim, “Oh, what a sweet idea! I love you so much!” Then we would drive to the store and she would find the perfect gift. It would be a memory that would last the rest of our lives...the gift would sit on our fireplace mantle or a nice display cabinet at some point in the future. Lori would look at it when she was old and remember what a sweet and practical husband she had, and we would tell our grandkids the story of our first Valentines as a married couple...okay maybe not all of that. But I thought it was a good idea.
Instead of the “I love you’s” and excitement I got, “What! Are you kidding? So you didn’t get me a present?” and that is when I realized that this was not going to be anything close to how I imagined. Oh, we would be telling our grandkids this story, but it would be more of the “cautionary tale” and things to avoid kind of story.
The fight went from there...with me, in my typical clueless, ignorance, trying to figure out what I did wrong, and trying to explain that I hadn’t gotten her anything YET. You see the keyword was YET! I was planning on getting you something...I just needed you to go with me.
Every time I tell this story the guys think they know what I did wrong, and the women know.
Guys think that giving her a shopping spree at the store was the mistake...sorry guys. That’s not it. Women know that I should have gone and bought the present, almost any present, and given it to her. Because that is what someone who really cared would have done.
They say it’s not just the gift that counts...it’s the thought behind it. But if that were true, I wouldn’t have been in trouble.
I wanted to get her something nice, and I wanted it to be what she wanted. My motives were good, but my method...well, it needed some work.
Despite how my story turned out...motives are a very important thing. They say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but so too is the road to heaven. Motives are important; especially when it comes to serving God. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus is asking a simple, but pointed question...“Why do you do the righteous acts that you do?”
Do you do them to bring praise, honor, and glory to your Father in heaven? Do you do them because you genuinely love your neighbor and want to be a blessing to them?
Do you think that these righteous acts will somehow give you better standing with God? Or that others will look at you and think...“What a good, Christian person you must be! Look at everything he does!”?
What are your motives?
Matthew 6 points out the three common “acts of righteousness” for First Century Jews: Almsgiving (or giving to the poor), prayer, and fasting. There were many more religious actions the average religious person would do, but these are the top three. Jesus is using them to represent all of the other things you or I might do to serve God. And, let’s face it, if I am doing one religious act for the wrong reasons...I am probably doing them all for the wrong reason.
So Jesus, pointing to our deepest motivations says, “Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Then he goes on to say that if you are performing a religious act so that others will look at you...you are a “hypocrite.” The word we interpret as hypocrite here is the same word used for an actor in the theater. It was a person who put on masks; a person who showed you a different face than their real one.
A while back I was watching the movie The Blindside. Part way through it was like this lightbulb went off inside my head...this is Sandra Bullock. Now, I knew it was Sandra Bullock, but her acting was so good that I forgot it was Sandra Bullock and was fully engaged in the movie. That is what a good actor should do...make you forget you are watching the actor and get totally involved in the storyline of the movie.
Great for actors...bad for those trying to follow Jesus.
We no longer associate the word hypocrite with an actor. But the principle makes sense. Someone trying to be someone or something they are not. They put on an act or use a mask to hide what is behind. They do this either intentionally or they are self-deluded and think they have the best of intentions when in fact they don’t.
And, unfortunately, people in the church have become known for being hypocrites. We say we don’t like hypocrites any more than people outside the church, but we often unintentionally encourage it. We don’t really want to know the sins a person struggles with. We don’t want to know that Eric sometimes looses his temper and yells at the dog or has an ever-so-slight problem with road rage. We don’t want to know those things and we don’t want others to know those things...so we wear masks.
The opposite of this is the person that tells you everything...so there is a balance. It requires being in a godly accountability relationship with someone other than our spouse where we share these things and receive prayer. It also means that we have to be more honest. We have to find a way to talk about “sin” in way that doesn’t imply “I am better than you because I don’t do that.”
But let’s be honest...people outside the church struggle with hypocrisy too...people wear masks to hide who they really are. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the persona we adopt when we walk out into public. Movies like American Beauty make it abundantly clear that people outside the church put on a facade to hide their true self just as often as people in the church. And it is even more hypocritical that a movie about hiding behind a facade of perfection comes from Hollywood which hides behind a wall of perfection.
I think it is just human nature. We are hypocrites because we don’t want people to see our flaws. But we are also hypocrites because we like to be liked and respected. Just as often as hiding sin, we want to appear good. For those of us in the church, we get this image of what a real Christian looks like and we try to be that...or at least look like we are that.
In Matthew 6, Jesus is challenging us not to put on a face of righteousness when we do our good deeds. Don’t do them so that people will see you and think, “What a good Christian person!” Jesus says that when we do these things to be seen by others...we have received all the reward we will ever get.
We shouldn’t serve the poor and the homeless, pray, tithe, fast, or do any other religious act so that people inside or outside the church think we are holy. We should do them because we are serving and loving our Father in heaven, and seeking to please him. We should do them because we are obediently loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Some have seen a conflict between these verses and Matthew 5:16 where Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
How can Jesus say to do the acts of righteousness so that people can see them and praise God in heaven for them and then turn around and say “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”? The simple answer is context. The verses preceding Matthew 5:16 speak of someone trying to hide their works of righteousness to avoid persecution. To that person Jesus says, “Let your light shine!” Don’t hide your acts of righteousness to avoid persecution. Shine them out so that people will honor your Father in heaven!
In Matthew 6 Jesus is speaking of someone who uses their acts of righteousness to gain better standing in front of others. To them Jesus says “Stop it! How you are viewed by other people are not the point of your righteous acts.”
When you and I do our act of righteousness with the intention of having people look at us and think we are good, God-fearing, Christian people...and they do...that is all the benefit we will receive from that action. When we do something to get applause...
their applause and respect
our only reward.
It is all about motives...why do you do the religious actions you do? Is it so that others will think you are a great Christian or do you do them for God?
Let me take off my mask for a moment and tell you about a few traps I fall into because of this passage...
The first trap is that I try decipher other people’s intentions.
If you are only slightly more intelligent than me you know this a stupid thing to attempt. But unfortunately it is a trap that, I suspect, I am not alone in.
We make snap judgments and decide the intentions of other people...and we simply are not able to do that accurately.
Walk into any soup kitchen in America and you will find two people standing next to each other that, for all intents and purposes, look to be exactly the same. They are sacrificing time with their families, taking time off work, spending a few hours giving food to people who are hungry. It is a good thing to serve others.
But one person is there because she is trying to bring glory to God and she is learning to love those people as herself ...the other is there because she wants others to think she is a good person or she believes God will show her special favor because she served in a soup kitchen...
and you know what?
You won’t be able to tell who is who.
I have a real problem with street preachers. I think it turns off more people to the Gospel than it brings in. Some, I think, believe they are right, and enjoy telling others they are wrong and going to hell for it! But I have to accept that many are doing it for all the right reasons. They believe hell is a real place, they love other people, and they don’t want people to go there. But for the life of me, I can’t tell which street preacher is doing it for the right reasons and which is doing it for the wrong reasons...because no matter how hard I look, I will never be able to see the things God sees. I can’t look at someones actions and see their intentions.
In 1 Samuel 16 God sends the prophet Samuel the house of Jesse to anoint Israel’s next King. Samuel tells Jesse why he is there, and Jesse calls for his sons to stand before the prophet. Samuel looks them over. The oldest is big and strong...good-looking...surely this is the one God has chosen he thinks. But he is wrong. After going through all of Jesse’s sons, God still has not chosen one. Surely God would have chosen one of these young men, but in 1 Samuel 16:7 God says.
“...Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
God didn’t choose the most handsome or strongest of Jesse’s sons...because God looked at something a lot deeper. And no matter how hard you or I look...we will never be able to see the things God sees.
The second trap is that I beat myself up because of mixed motives.
I don’t think anyone gets their motives right all the time. There are times when we have the right motives and times when we don’t. I am not a hypocrite all the time. I don’t want to be a hypocrite at all...but I am sometimes.
A few months back I was praying and reading the Bible, and a particular passage struck me. So, I did what any modern, technologically savvy hipster would do...I put the verse and my thoughts on Facebook. A few minutes later a friend chided me by saying “How holy of you!” Now my friend was kidding, but it led to a discussion with him and some introspection on my part...why was I posting it? In that moment, I think my motives were right...but there have been other times that they weren’t.
Some time ago I worked for a church where the pastor expected people to pray out loud and with a lot of emotion. He felt this was the right, and powerful, way to pray. As staff members we were expected to lead the way, and pray in this manner. The problem was that I don’t pray that way. He wanted loud, vocal prayer, and I tend toward the contemplative and quiet. But he would watch to see that we were “leading the way” for others, and you know how it is when your boss is looking at you. Many times, I caved. I attempted to be more vocal because that is what was expected...and in the process I wasn’t praying at all. My “act of righteousness” was aimed more at not getting in trouble than it was about speaking with God. I was putting on a face.
We have times when we get it right and times when we get it wrong. And when we get it wrong, the temptation is to beat ourselves up for it.
“You know better than that! What were you thinking!”
That’s why Jesus gave good, practical advice to help us. If we are tempted to put on a face...I will give so that others think I am a good Christian person...Jesus’ solution is found in Matthew 6:3, “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.”
Don’t fall into the trap of discussing whether you can actually give without your left hand knowing what you are doing...you can’t...I’ve tried. Use the principle...do your acts of righteousness in secret.
I know what you are thinking...”But if I do them in secret then people like you will try to judge my intentions because you don’t see me serving!” I know. I’m sorry. Good thing that the only person we need to please is God alone.
The church will probably never be free of hypocrites...I don’t say that to be pessimistic, I just know that I don’t intend to leave the church...But imagine for a moment what it would look like, what it would say to others if, through God’s grace and enabling, we simply recognized our hypocrisy and took one step closer to taking off the mask...to live to please God and God alone.
You know, when I read the Bible, I am reminded that the Good News of Jesus Christ, His forgiveness and mercy, is not just for the new person, it is also for me. As far as I have come in my growth with God, I am still a long way off, and I find myself in need of His forgiveness. I am tempted to put on my religious face and seek the acceptance of others instead of Him. I am always looking at someone and trying to judge their intentions. And then I am beating myself up because I should have known better than to seek other people’s approval.
God doesn’t expect us to get it perfect, but He does expect us to seek His forgiveness and try, through His strength, to take steps closer to Him and further away from hypocrisy. I’m not perfect, but I’m better than I used to be.
Take a moment. Ask yourself, what area of my life is God speaking to me about right now? What area of my do I put the hypocritical face on and try to hide or make look more holy? Then, I want you to just say, “Father, I need your forgiveness for this area of my life. Please help me to be more authentic and seek only your approval.”
Now...go and do your acts of righteousness in secret.