Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Matthew 6:1
Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you. Matthew 6:2
Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door. Matthew 6:6
Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. Matthew 6:16
The first half of the sixth chapter of Matthew contains some unsettling instructions for worship. Jesus contrasts the ways hypocrites worship with a methodology more consistent with accessing the kingdom of heaven. Spoiler Alert: humility is required! Jesus does not criticize the religious practices of his day – praying, fasting, and giving; but he does give specific direction for the way those practices are carried out. If we are practicing religion in order to look good to others, we are not likely to enter the kingdom of God.
It is easy to get into a comfortable rhythm of worshiping but neglect whom we worship. Certainly, we claim God as the focus for worship, but does God really care about how we are dressed or that we sing our songs of praise loudly, in tune, or even if we sing at all? If we are honest, much of how we approach worship is to either impress, or at least avoid the criticism of our brothers and sisters in the worship space. I wonder about the motivation of folks who post their church attendance to social media – not that that is necessarily bad. If they advertise their church attendance to encourage others to join them, fine. If they do it to show themselves to be holier than their neighbor, shame on them. Jesus says, Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Why? He continues, For then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). Once we are honest about whose response we are most focused on receiving, we know whom we worship.
It is easy to become obsessed with our appearance to others. Ultimately, this is a form of idol worship, seeking our rewards from someone or something other than God. And this is exactly Jesus’ point – that our focus needs to be on God. What is apparently important to God, according to Jesus, is a humble and focused heart. 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 6:6). It is safe to assume that this sort of private worship is not only what connects most effectively with God, but is also the most beneficial form of worship for us. Everything else is window dressing – obstacles and idols we place between God and ourselves that inhibit any sort of a direct connection. Certainly, there is an element of safety in approaching the throne of God with others. And granted, we need to approach God in awe and with reverence, which naturally includes an element of fear. Our fear of coming face-to-face with God and exposing ourselves in our naked imperfection, however, is a fear we must learn to overcome if we wish to experience the all-inclusive love of our creator. We are loved as we are, where we are, completely and unconditionally, but we cannot fully receive that love when our attention is directed elsewhere.
When we give our offerings, we should not announce it to the world in order to be praised by others. Yes, we should be generous according to our ability, but we should give for the furtherance of God’s work on earth, not for our own glorification. When we fast, we are not to make a production of how intolerably we are sacrificing. Rather, we are to sacrifice with joy, knowing that fasting is a practice that opens our heart to the presence of God. Giving and fasting bring their own rewards.
Focusing on ourselves or how others perceive us makes our God too small. The purpose of worshiping God is not to make ourselves feel insignificant and sinful, but to acknowledge and know that we are intimately connected to something large, loving, and wonderful. Ultimately, our joy resides within the community of believers, members of the body of Christ. And not only is our joy there, but also our security, for abiding in that body is the only truly safe place to reside. To enter that amazing space of worship, however, we must enter with humility.
This is the 23rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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