HONORED BY MEN, OR BY GOD?
By Steve Zeisler
The fifth chapter of Matthew's gospel ends with a powerful call: "Be
perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." A few verses prior, this
record of the Sermon on the Mount tells us that Jesus said, "Love your
enemies...that you may be sons [children] of your Father in heaven."
The fatherhood* of God as our source, caretaker, overseer, and leader is
much in evidence beginning here. Reference is made to God as Father a dozen
times in chapter 6, and so it is an important theme to have in mind.
The fatherhood of God as we considered it in chapter 5 had to do primarily
with the imprint of the character of God that is made on us. Our attitudes,
the way we live our lives, and the way we think are derived from our heavenly
Father as we make choices to let him be the one who influences and controls
us. But there is another very important thing that a parent can do for a
child. It is not only to implant the character that will sustain them in
every setting, but to pass on a word of blessing to them. The questions
moves from, "Am I like my Father" to "Have I pleased my Father?"
That is the concern before us as we begin chapter 6.
There is a marvelous book by Gary Smalley and John Trent, called The
Blessing. They note the pattern of the Old Testament patriarchs, who
at the end of life would gather their children and pass on a word of blessing,
promotion, and direction for the future. The concept of receiving a blessing
from your parent is a very important one. Very few people, if they understand
themselves at all, live without having a deep need to win the approval of
their parents, wanting to know that they have succeeded in living up to
their parents' standards.
Leslie and I are in a prayer group that consists mostly of people our age.
And we're at an age when it is not uncommon to lose one's parents. Of the
seven couples in the group, four members have had a parent die in the last
eighteen months. It has been a powerful experience to live through and help
each other through. We want to be there at the end of our parents' lives;
to be at our mother's bedside, to touch a dying father. If there has been
pain and hardship in the relationship, we long to receive even just a squeeze
of the hand, to have a sense of making things right, of saying the things
that were never said or never heard.
Some people have been parented very badly. We don't have to work very hard
to think of situations in which there is pain in the relationship between
parent and child. Some parents live as if their children weren't there,
and they never talk to them, listen to them, face them, touch them, or show
an interest in them. What can provide the longed-for blessing from that
sort of parent? Other parents have dominated their children; their own lives
didn't turn out the way they wanted them to, and they try to live vicariously
through their children. Other parents exhibit their anger and frustration
and pain by abusing their children. Again, the longed-for blessing is hard
to experience. The disconnect is profound, the hurt real.
Yet Jesus speaks of God as a heavenly Father, and he speaks specifically
in the passage before us of a reward that comes from God, which is essentially
his blessing. What does it mean to have God shower on us a blessing? The
striking thing about God is that his parenting is never withdrawn. His attention
is never elsewhere. His approval can be entered into with certainty all
the time. In this Parent we have someone who will in fact uphold us, care
about us, and sustain us; who will be there---he won't die, slip into a
coma, grow distracted, or give others all his attention so we're not permitted
to have it. This is a Father whose blessing we can count on, and we ought
to look forward to it. His gaze is always on us, even in secret. And he
rewards what he sees. Verse 1:
"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
Let me stop here and mention two assumptions that are in this verse before
we go on. First, if we are Christians, we are going to do what Jesus calls
"acts of righteousness;" we are going to have religious sensibilities.
It is impossible that we don't. This passage will mention three religious
activities done for God's sake: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. They are
ways of making an offering to God of our life. In fact, these activities
are all done in various cultures and religions. Islam has a great deal to
say about all three; in the case of fasting, a great deal more than most
Christians encounter. Judaism, obviously, and many other religions will
have these religious activities that people engage in deliberately to make
their life an offering to God. It is not enough, as some liberal theologians
would say, to live an ethical life among human beings to succeed in doing
everything that God requires of you. We ought to be good to others---just
and loving and truth-telling and so forth. But inevitably we're going to
want to turn our face toward God at some point; to be in his presence; to
be deliberately, thoughtfully, actively, seeking him, giving ourselves directly
to him, and caring about his response.
The second assumption in verse 1 is that our religious life is going to
issue in reward ultimately. We'll discuss this further in a moment.
The point Jesus makes is that we must be careful---the reward for these
religious activities can come either from men or from God. And if we receive
our reward from men, we have received it in full. There is no more.
Let's continue with our text in verses 2-4:
"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."
Our Father's reward
Verses 5-15 comprise Jesus' discussion of prayer, but we're going to skip
over this section for now and come back to it in the next message. Verses
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do,
for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you
the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put
oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men
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."
What does it mean to receive a reward from God? What is at stake in this?
Does it seem a bit self-centered to live life looking forward to being rewarded
by God? The old saying is, "Goodness is its own reward." Shouldn't
it be sufficient to do what is right because it is right without any thought
of reward? It is important for us to understand what the reward that comes
from our Father is, because it is true that if we were thinking of rewards
as material things it would be immature, and unrighteous. To say, "I'm
going to love God, do what is right, worship, pray, and fast because I will
become rich, famous, and secure if I do" would be a non-Christian way
of thinking. But reward from God has nothing to do with riches. We are not
in competition with anyone else. There is not some limited supply of something
over which we are fighting with other people to be rewarded by God and to
hoard for ourselves.
Rewards from God are never an entitlement (a word much in the news lately).
They are not something that we can demand because we have done the correct
things and we have a right to expect God to respond as we tell him to. C.S.
Lewis commented thoughtfully on this in his essay The Weight of Glory:
We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this
promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are
different kinds of reward. There is the reward that has no natural connection
with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that
ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward for love.
That is why we call a man a mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake
of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he
is not a mercenary for desiring it.
If our desire to please God is genuine and he communicates his pleasure
to us, a cirecle has been completed. The reward is the consummation of the
righteous act itself. It is not some material thing tacked on that is unrelated
to the action that we do to receive it.
Jesus told a parable about a master who returned after being gone on a long
journey, and he met with his servants to see how they had done in his absence
(see Matthew 25:14-30). Some of them pleased him, and the master said to
them, "Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master's
happiness!" That is the reward that we can expect from God---his smile,
his delight in us, his embrace. You enter into the joy that your Master
feels in you. I can't imagine anything finer than to know for sure that
my God has been made joyful by some little thing that I've done for the
right reasons, and for him to come near enough to give me the Father's blessing:
"Well done! I'm delighted! I see you, I understand you, I haven't missed
a thing, and I'm thrilled with you! Let me communicate what is in my heart
When God is not pleased
The warning about rewards, however, is that we can be religious and be paid
off by the folks around us. We can sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the
poor. We can pray loudly and brilliantly. We can fast. We can do all that
and get just what human beings will give us; that is all we'll ever receive.
God cares about our motivation, not just our activity.
Sometimes the activities as Jesus describes them here are done in a public,
attention-grabbing manner. This is funny language, by the way; he intends
this to be a caricature. He speaks of a man who is blowing a trumpet in
public and then dragging some poor person into the spotlight who is desperately
embarrassed to be there and forcing alms upon him, saying in effect, "Look
at me, look at what I'm doing!" Jesus talks about the ancient people
who in their time of fasting would put ashes on their face or leave their
hair disheveled or do something else that would call attention to how much
they were denying themselves, and once again be cheered for their superior
Paul Kroeger and I were talking a little bit earlier about this subject.
He and his family live in Malaysia, a Muslim nation. Ramadan is a month
long fast that Muslims undertake every year. When he was a school teacher,
kids would come to class looking wan and put their heads down on their desks
every morning during the month of Ramadan. Those who were most successful
in calling attention to their deprivation were accorded the highest status.
We can do things that ought to please God for public approval and get what
we ask for; that is all the reward. God's pleasure in our activities is
nowhere to be found because we have done them for the wrong reasons.
Interestingly, Jesus makes the more subtle point that we can be religious
to please ourselves, even without calling others' attention to what we're
doing. That is what he means when he says, "...Don't let your left
hand know what your right hand is doing...." He means, Don't dwell
on what a terrific person you are even in your private thoughts. Don't spend
a lot of time patting yourself on the back for your generosity, for the
extra sensitivity you have in your prayer life, and for your willingness
to deny yourself things that other people seem caught up with. Don't smugly
make your way through life looking at yourself in comparison to others.
Don't let what you've done for the Lord's sake keep coming up again in your
consciousness. Otherwise you will miss out on the reward from God."
Now let's look at the religious activities themselves: giving to the poor
in prayer (which we will take up next time), and fasting.
Care for the needy
Almsgiving, or care for the needy, is important to consider. This is not
just giving a quarter to the spare-change artist on the street. If your
Creator who loves you in your complete poverty loves other people as much
as he loves you, then you have some responsibility to care for the people
whom God cares for. Shouldn't we be motivated to meet the needs of the needy
not because it makes us impressed with ourselves, assuages our consciences,
or makes us look good in the eyes of other people; but because God cares
for them, and we offer this service as an act of devotion to him? We hope
to see as he does people who can't make their own way; who are diseased,
poor, or ostracized.
Let me raise the obvious point that giving to the poor assumes that we have
overcome the tendency to distance and insulate ourselves from AIDS sufferers,
the mentally ill, runaway and throwaway children, etc. It is important to
give for relief of Rwandan orphans, but much greater lessons are learned
when we are personally engaged with poor people who are loved by God.
Let's think about the second issue, fasting. Clearly, it has to do with
food first of all. The simple point is to deny yourself meals for a day
or some period of days in order to deal with the distraction that comes
with eating. Eating not only has to do with consuming food, becoming drowsy
afterward, and all the other associated physiology; but it also has to do
with shopping for food, preparing it, and the social environment in which
it is eaten. It is a demanding appetite that can take a great deal of time
and attention. So we can at times deliberately say, "For God's sake
I'm going to say no to the demands, cut off the responsibility. I'm not
going to get involved in using up my time and thoughts and activities for
food, in order to be able to devote them to God."
Fasting can include denying ourselves other things besides food. You can
go on an information fast---cut yourself off from your computer bulletin
board and all the things you do to pour information into your life all the
time. We can turn off the television for awhile; or say no to casual, unnecessary,
silly relationships for awhile; and instead devote some time to prayer and
thoughtfulness. There are all kinds of ways that we can make a choice to
live with discipline in order to devote ourselves to what is important.
In the Old Testament there were two things that fasting was always associated
with in the life of Israel. One was sorrow, brokenheartedness, and repentance.
We can say no to all the daily distractions that make up our lives in order
to sit brokenhearted over something. We can do this when we come face-to-face
with some truth about ourselves that was hidden from us and discover that
we hate it, or when we face the awfulness of the culture that we live in,
the brokenness of other people's lives and our own.
The other thing fasting was often associated with in Israel was the future.
I can fast when I don't know where God will send me next, what his will
for me is, or how to make the important decision that is before me. So I
can say no to all the clutter and clamor, the demands, the responsibilities;
and clear the decks in order to focus on asking what is his call for me
is. In both of those cases, the fasting is done to deliberately place ourselves
thoughtfully and fully in God's presence, to hear from him, whether about
sin's sorrows or about the future.
The expectation, as Jesus says, is that either we will do these things because
we love God and we want to live our lives so that he sees how much we love
him in our choices, making our life an offering to him in fact---or we will
do these things for the sake of others. Not too long ago I was sacrificially
working hard, giving up time and effort, helping some folks repair their
home. I was wearing old clothes because it involved some demolition, dust
and clutter. I had a meeting with a church leadership group shortly afterward
in our home. I got home and thought to myself, "I have an hour before
these people come. I have plenty of time to shower and change into my regular
clothes. Or I can sit here in my old clothes, with all the evidence that
I've been doing something difficult. I won't bring up what I was doing,
but if they're willing to ask, I'll subtly let them know how sacrificial,
thoughtful, and helpful I have been." That is really the issue that
Jesus is talking about here---doing things in such a way that we get credit
for it among people; or doing our acts of service and our self-denial as
offering to God, because we want to please him and no one else.
Today the children were up on the platform singing, and it brought back
memories to me of when our kids were little and the Christmas pageants and
other functions in which they were involved. The little ones stand up here
looking for their mom and dad, waving, pointing, smiling, and bouncing up
and down, unconscious that there is anyone else in the room. Mom and Dad
have the camera focused on their child. Now, other people are listening
and music is being sung (supposedly); a congregation is present. But there
is a marvelous sense in which the child is getting the approval of his parents.
They are saying, "You're doing great! You're such a great singer and
such a marvelous child! What you're doing is completely delightful to us!"
The child is beaming because his parents are pleased with what he's doing.
Parents and child are often oblivious to anything but what is going on between
them. No one else enters into what is being communicated.
Jesus wants us to understand that our Father wants to reward us, to pass
on a blessing to us. He wants us to know how much he loves us. Our Father
wants to say, "Come and share in your Master's happiness! I want you
to know how much I'm delighted about the things you think and the things
you've done. You made an offering of your life to me and I accept it wholeheartedly!"
However much a failure we are as parents to our children or our parents
were a failure to us, there is a heavenly Father who does give his blessing,
who does reward those who make choices from the heart for his sake.
Act only for the sake of "...your Father, who is unseen; and your Father,
who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Live your life not
for the sake of those around you who will observe it and communicate their
observation. Your Father is unseen. He sees what is done in secret and why
it is done. Live your life as an offering to him, and your Father who sees
what is done in secret will reward you.
* The term father here is not used to distinguish from a mother but
rather from a child. We are to think of God as our parent and receive enlightenment
from him rather than from our peers. The point is not maleness and femaleness,
nor is it when the word son is used.
Catalog No. 4411
Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18
November 13, 1994
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