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Read Matthew 6:1-18.

We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We are a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Our Lord has instructed us to let our light shine so that when people see our good deeds they will glorify our Father in heaven.

But now he is saying that we ought to be careful not to do our acts of righteousness before people. Instead we ought to do them in secret. Is he contradicting himself? Are we to let our light shine or cover it with a bushel?

There’s no contradiction. We are the city set on a hill. As a church that is salt and light, we don not practice righteousness for our own sakes – we practice righteousness so that world might know God.

This is why there is no contradiction: In the teaching we just heard, Jesus is cautioning us not to do good deeds in order to gain approval from others. It’s all about the reward we expect. Our we letting our light shine so that the world will praise our Father (and come to know Him) or are we concerned with the approval and acceptance of others?

Jesus brings up the hypocrites. A hypocrite is an actor or performer. Jesus is using this term to colorfully describe the people whose acts of righteousness are aimed at getting public acceptance. They need to people to know their generosity. They need people to notice how carefully and accurately they can pray. They need people to see that they observe self-denial and are repentant. Hypocrites – their faith is on display for others to evaluate. That’s what Jesus meant with that term.

Of course, we have modified the term a bit. We’ve taken it out of its pedestrian usage and made it semi-religious. For us the hypocrite is a charlatan, a phony, someone with impure motives. It’s Elmer Gantry trying to bilk the good folk at the tent meeting. It’s the televangelist who asks for a seed offering and then he spends it on a house in Hawaii. It’s the false prophet who manipulates the church and the busybody who doesn’t practice what she preaches. (In our usage, a hypocrite is usually someone else) These are all problems, but that not what Jesus means by hypocrite.

In fact, a hypocrite does practice what he preaches. Notice that the “hypocrites” are gravely concerned about their acts of righteousness gaining the approval of others. They want to be “seen.” They need their reward from others. Jesus mentions three very individual acts of righteousness: giving, praying, fasting. These are three acts in which the individual (the singular “you”) participates in what all the community of the righteous should be doing.

The ones who seek the reward and approval of others is anxious for others to notice that what he or she gives is enough to make a difference. He doesn’t want to be shamed as someone who didn’t give his due. She doesn’t want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t contribute her part.

The ones who seek the reward and approval of others are anxious for others to notice that he or she prays often and prays correctly. He wants people to see how we ought to pray. She wants to pray at the proper times. The ones who seek the reward and approval of others are anxious for others to notice that – well, we don’t fast do we. Kind of hard to get a hold of that in our age of indulgence, eh? So the ones who seek the reward and approval of others are anxious are anxious to let others know when they have given up something important. They want some understanding and just the acknowledgement of their sacrifice.

It’s easy to describe those who seek the reward and approval of others and always think of them as someone else. So I want to tell you how I am complicit in the system of “being seen by others” and if you find yourself there too, then you can share with me in the journey of letting God change you too.

They say that ministers and their families live in a fishbowl. It means that everything we do is visible for all to see. I suppose the fishbowl would apply to a lot of leaders in the church. It would apply to so many of us really. I shared the metaphor of the fishbowl to a friend recently – someone who is not a church leader but is in a highly visible position in society – and he was impressed by the accuracy of the image. All of us feel like our deeds are being monitored. And it becomes natural that if we are “on display” we ought to at least hear what the audience thinks of our performance so far, right? “How am I doing?” as the once mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, used to say.

I get caught up in our habits that put a lot of emphasis on what others will think. Sometimes we as a church will do something simply because we are concerned about what others will think – and it may be something really good. I have sometimes taken satisfaction in doing something because it “looks good for the church.” And there are times we don’t do something because we are concerned about what people will think. I forget that sometimes it is risky to follow Jesus and sometimes people do get upset because I am trying to follow him.

Now on the one hand, our deeds must reflect the glory of God. As a community we are “on display” – we’re the city on the hill. But on the other hand, we cannot make the approval of others our aim. If we want that “Reward” we can get it – and we can get it easily. But the reward we are waiting on is the reward of our father. Our Father in heaven has a view much better than the spectators looking into the fishbowl. He sees what we do in secret. He is able to evaluate us on more than just our public display. Does that comfort you or scare you? If it scares you, then ask yourself what reward you are seeking. If it comforts you then keep focusing on what God wants you to do because of who you are.

Darlene grew up in a faith tradition that emphasized the quality of prayer. If you couldn’t pray right, she was told, then God will not answer your prayers. Darlene was intimidated and she just didn’t pray at church, or even at home. But then she found out she had cancer. She wasn’t sure if God heard her because she was told that her prayers were weak and were corrupted by the sin in her life. But she kept trying to pray anyway. Some friends put me and some of my elders in Texas in touch with Darlene. We visited with her. One of our elders assured her that God loves her. He mentioned that God’s Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8). I asked her, “Darlene, you say you’ve been praying. What do you pray.” She was reluctant to share it. Sort of humble and shy about it. Then she said, “I pray ... Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever ... And then I say, Lord it’s me again.”

Now what does God think about that prayer? The Lord’s Prayer keeps us focused on God. Whose approval do we seek?

Whose will is the focus of our discipleship? Your own, or the will of your Father.

Do you want to get it right ... or do you want to be righteous?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 24 September 2006

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