In Matthew 6:1-18, the Lord preaches a sermon that contains three points on giving, praying, and fasting. But in each section of his sermon, he makes exactly the same point. Today, we're going to look carefully at Jesus's three points. In each one, Jesus makes a clear distinction that his hearers would have quickly recognized—and that we can easily recognize too, if we think about it.
Jesus is distinguishing between true devotion and the practice of those religious leaders who give their money and pray and fast with a lot of pomp and fanfare and bluster, just so that they could be seen doing it.
Think about how you might feel if a wealthy and prominent member of your church stood up in the middle of the offering time to hand the pastor an oversized check. Or what about the guy who stands up to pray in your community group only to use vocal tones he never uses otherwise, and he makes his language much holier than usual, and you know he's going to get those prayer affirmation noises (you know: 'Mmm,' 'yes Lord,' and 'amen!'). Or what about the lady who likes to slip it into conversation that she makes it a point to stop at least once a week to fast and pray?
Do you know these people? Are you one of these people?
Jesus is warning against this mindset that says outward religion is what god really wants; that outward and public religious devotion is of first importance. This is the mindset that God cares most about the posture I use when I pray or the words that I use.
In the context of the passage, Jesus was preaching against the outward religious orientation of the Pharisees. And for those who have grown up in church or who have spent the last few years in some sort of public ministry, it's pretty easy to see how the Pharisees got it wrong. I am reminded of Jesus's illustration about how the Pharisees were more concerned with washing the outside of a cup than washing the inside of it. It is easy to see the relative emptiness of purely external religion.
Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Michael Corleone renounces the devil and all his works while his henchmen knock off all of his competition one-by-one. This scene clearly shows the dissonance between public devotion, and personal disregard for the reality behind the devotion. Empty religion is repugnant and that can be easy to see.
But this passage has more to say to us if we look just a bit closer. If we look into our hearts, I think we can find—at least I can find in my own heart that there is a spot in me that really wants to be congratulated on my generosity. And when I pray, I hate to admit it, but I tend to listen for those little affirmation noises. And I can remember times I've been disappointed that I didn't get any. I can remember talking about times that I've fasted—trying to be modest, but really loving the attention.
Just as much as he was speaking about the abuses of the
Pharisees, we have to realize that Jesus was speaking to us too.
We evangelical Christians have a lot in common with our friends
the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the theologically conservative
movement of their time. They loved the Scriptures. They were
inerrantists, so to speak. They wanted to believe what the Bible
taught and do what it said. The temptations they faced are some of
the same temptations we face. We face the same temptations to
outward displays of holiness that they faced.
We must understand that the true religion of God—the religion that Jesus preached—is a religion of the heart. In Jesus we see the exact likeness of God the Father, and we are moved by the Holy Spirit to worship him in spirit and in truth!
The fact of the matter is that it is common to humans to want to make ourselves holy (or at least to make ourselves look holy enough). Right?
But Jesus says to us, "Listen, that's a sin! That is offensive to me. I will not reward your outward holiness if you're not going to be holy on the inside. Because I see what is done in secret!"
But you know, even though we're tempted to give and pray and fast and do ministry to be seen and praised by others, and even though we actually live that way from time to time, Jesus's admonition is actually good news for us. Jesus says his Father sees what is done in secret!
You and I can only see the the broad patterns in our lives and actions, and that's good because we can ask the right questions and dig into each others' lives, and help each other walk along the way. But Jesus cuts strait to the heart. The Father sees our hearts.
And the promise that we have been promised is that when we recognize and repent of our sin—even the sin of loving the praise of others—and when we cling to Jesus Christ as our hope and our salvation, he will not let us go!
It is this gospel—this heart devotion—that assures us of God's favor, and then begins to prompt us from the inside out to change our pattern of life. We are prompted to give and pray and fast and worship purely for the sake of the glory of God and for the good of others. And all of this happens as we are shaped and molded and exposed and changed by the application of the word of God to our hearts.
So let us worship this God. He is the Father who looks on the heart. He sees what is done in secret. And he loves his Son, and along with his Son, he loves everyone who is found in him! Allow Jesus's words to expose the ways you are tempted to love the praise of others—really, the ways you are tempted to worship yourself. Then allow God's promise—his sure promise of repentance and salvation to wash your heart clean.
Date: 22 September 2011
Text: Matthew 6:1-18
Title: Your Father Sees Your Heart
Location: Dillard Chapel at Southern Seminary
Event: Thursday Evening Prayer