Jesus at the Crossroads: Practicing Faith for Our Own Gain
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18
March 5, 2017
For the Jewish audience with whom Jesus interacted, there were three great spiritual practices – the giving of alms or offerings, prayer and fasting. Each of the three practices was surrounded by guidelines. Prayer, in particular, as a practice, was something that good, faithful Jews were expected to do at multiple set times every day.
These three practices all had private elements to them. But, they also all had public dimensions to them as well which made them very dangerous. Giving often happened in private but it also happened in the context of public worship. One prayed alone but one also prayed in front of others. Fasting was a solitary act and yet others knew when one was fasting and could easily become aware of its impact on the body.
Others were often watching and this led to one of the most sinister aspects of the life of faith – to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reasons. Said another way, the public aspect of these acts of the spiritual life always left one open to the temptation to practice them more out a desire to impress others more so than to honor God.
There is a word that we use a lot today that is at the heart of this passage. It is the word hypocrite. We use the word today to mainly talk about someone who goes to church or uses a lot of church-like language but who acts completely different in their day to day lives. Their words and their behavior have nothing in common with each other and thus we call them a hypocrite.
The word hypocrite literally comes from the Greek world of acting and was a way of describing an actor on stage who wore a mask and thus pretended to be someone else. There is every reason to believe that Jesus would have seen this event in action as the heavily Greek influenced town of Sepphoris which was a cultural hotspot of the area was very near his hometown of Nazareth.
Here, this idea of acting seems to be at the heart of what Jesus says in Matthew 6. Yet, Jesus seems focused not on acting one way on Sundays and another way the rest of the week as we usually use the term. Instead, here he seems focused on those occasions when we act spiritual more for how our behavior influences others for our own benefit than in an attempt to only to please God.
This danger exists in abundance today in almost every element of the Christian life. More so than we might want to admit, we too often live at the same crossroads between a life of faith lived to honor God and a life of faith lived to impress others.
In 1914, in the wake of the Titanic tragedy, a similar disaster occurred in the waters off the coast of Virginia when the steamship Monroe was rammed by the merchant vessel Nantucket. As a result, 41 people lost their lives in the icy waters of the Atlantic and Congress grilled the captains of the two ships in an attempt to figure out what happened. Ultimately, the blame was placed on the faulty steering compass used by the captain of the Monroe which he admitted was off by two degrees. Yet, in his estimation two degrees was still well within the acceptable range to navigate the ship. What he had failed to think about, however, was the fact that in the one year that he had captained the Monroe, he had never reset the compass – not even once. Thus slowly but surely and almost unnoticeably, the compass had gotten further and further off course. (As told in “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith, pg. 21)
The point is this, it is easy to convince ourselves that small deviations are not that big of a deal. So what if it looks good on my resume that I am a deacon at the First Baptist Church – at least I am giving of my time. Is it a crime that I am fulfilling my community service commitments through my church? I am still doing missions! Yeah, I am mainly trying to get my mother in law off my back but at least I am in church. Sure, I love the satisfaction I get when the church leaders pull me off to the side to get my advice on important matters since I am one of the major contributors. But, I am giving, I am a major benefactor.
No question, all of those statements show that we are just a couple of degrees off course which isn’t a big deal for they only feel slightly self serving. But, over time, it is easy for us to move further and further off course until our faith is less about God and more about us.
These inherit dangers beg us to remember two important truths. First, they call us to remember that when it comes to this life of faith, we are invited to live it out in front of an audience of one – our Lord. In other words, we should act, speak and make decisions as if only one person is watching us with that being God and God alone.
When I was playing High School football, I was nowhere near the caliber of athlete that my two older brothers had been. I had the same last name but none of their ability. Nonetheless, I desperately wanted to impress them with my playing skills. I still remember vividly the first varsity game in which I was in uniform. We lost in overtime to Haleyville High School. What I also remember is that once we took the field, I scanned the stands for my two older brothers. To me, they were the only people who mattered as everyone else sitting in the stands that night literally faded to the background. I never got to go on the field in that first game. My uniform was just as clean when the game ended as it had been when it began. I was so embarrassed but only because of the two people who had come to see me play and because of what I perceived as their expectations of me. I felt like I had let them down. Again, there were a couple of thousand people at the game but there were really only two that really mattered to me.
This is the place that we must arrive at when it comes to faith and to the disciplines of faith. Yes, there may be other people watching or observing us but in the end they don’t matter. The only one who matters is God, everyone else should and must fade to the background.
This decision to see God as our only audience leads very easily to a second reality. If God is our audience and God alone then it doesn’t matter what others want us to do or what their expectations are, the only one we are trying to please with our spiritual practices is God. Thus, we do what we do for God’s end not for our own benefit or because of how our spiritual behavior may increase our standing with others.
I read an interesting story recently about the last days of Andrew Jackson who was our seventh president and from the state of Tennessee. As Jackson neared the end of his life, a friend and great admirer of his offered the former president a unique gift. The gift was a fancy, hand carved burial box that had literally been prepared for a king in the Middle East. Jackson’s friend had been traveling there and had acquired the Royal Box with the express purpose of giving it to Jackson as a way of honoring him and affording him the chance to be buried like a King.
While Andrew Jackson may be a controversial figure in American history today, in this moment he made a marvelous decision. In the end, Jackson, though tempted, refused the gift. He did so primarily on the grounds that being a president had never been about becoming royalty. In his eyes, being a president had been about serving the people. (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2017)
This is our ongoing temptation as people of faith in a nutshell. What is this life of faith really about? Do we pray, give, serve, worship only so others can see us in a good light and think well of us? Do we do it primarily because it makes us look good to certain people, pleases them and thus helps push forward our personal agenda?
Or, do we do these things for our audience of one who is God and only because they give us they chance to draw closer to him and to live more fully in light of his kingdom and who he calls us to be?
Do we do the right things but only for the wrong reasons? Or do we do the right things yet also with the best of intentions in mind? This is a crossroads where Jesus rightfully understood the religious people of his day to be and it is the same crossroads where we also often find ourselves.
Finally, this crossroads is also one in which this season of Lent instructs us wisely. For in these days, we recognize and remember again Jesus’ literal emptying of himself that led him all the way to the cross, not because it is what he wanted to do or because it is what would impress others but only because it is what God asked of him. Amen.