Are you a good actor?
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
My favorite media preacher is a character in the (now defunct) KUDZU comic strip, known as The Reverend Will B. Dunn. In one strip, Reverend Dunn is shaking hands with those exiting the church at the end of the service.
Kudzu: “Nice sermon, Reverend Dunn!”
Reverend Dunn: “Well bless your heart!”
Kudzu’s Mother: “Preacher, I must be candid … that was the silliest, most banal and ridiculous prayer I ever heard …”
Reverend Dunn: “That’s okay, Mrs. Dubose … I wasn’t talking to you!”
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he had just instructed His audience – His disciples and the crowds – that they are to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Earlier He had told them that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees – the most religious people of the day (5:20).
He has been expounding on the Law of Moses with a series of “You’ve heard this, but I say this,” and in each case He seems to be raising the requirements as He moves from external actions to internal.
The tragic thing is that when we are confronted with the demands given in chapter 5, the desire to conform to these demands can lead in the opposite direction from what Jesus desires. So instead of examining our inner attitudes we make external changes – cosmetic changes. We clean up the outside so that we will look more “righteous” and more “perfect.” I believe it’s possible to assume that in doing this, we’re doing just exactly what Jesus wants us to. And this is especially a temptation to those in public ministry, who stand in front of people.
But Jesus calls the people who do this “hypocrites” (6:2, 5, 16)! The Greek word used here, hupokrites, is the word from which our English word is derived. In ancient Greek it was used in a good sense. The hupokrites was one who played a part on a stage, one who donned the mask, an actor. But by Jesus’ day the word had gained the negative connotation of a person whose behavior was not consistent with his speech or profession.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a transition in 6:1 from the high demands of chapter 5 to a series of warnings. He goes from “Be perfect” to “Be careful.” Jesus knows our tendencies to be actors, to live the life of a disciple in front of others without any inward change.
So He gives a warning about this sort of behavior, a general statement (6:1), followed by three specific examples of religious behavior and how they can be abused, along with correctives: acts of charity (6:2-4); prayer (6:5, 6); and, fasting (6:16-18). These three were considered very important acts of true religion by the Jews of Jesus’ day, though He could have used other examples, and most of us could easily think of others. [There is a long digression on prayer and forgiveness sandwiched in between the warnings on prayer and fasting. I’ll get to that later.]
“Be careful that you don’t practice your righteousness before people so as to be seen by them; if you do you don’t have a reward before your Father Who is in the heavens” (Matthew 6:1).
“So then, whenever you do your acts of charity, don’t blow a trumpet in front of you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may be glorified by people. Amen I say to you, they have their reward! But you, when you do your acts of charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your charitable act may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4). (Some later Greek texts add the word “openly” at the end of the sentence.)
“And whenever you pray don’t be like the hypocrites, because they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets so they may make their appearances to people. Amen I say to you, they have their reward! But you whenever you pray, go into your closet and with the door shut, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5, 6).
“And whenever you fast, don’t become gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so they may appear to people to be fasting. But you when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you won’t appear to people to be fasting. And your Father Who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). The word translated “disfigure” is the same word that is used in verse 19 to describe what moth and rust do to earthly treasures.
One question that comes to mind is, who are these hypocrites to whom Jesus refers? He uses this term quite frequently and usually He is referring to the religious people of His day-- scribes, Pharisees, priests, synagogue officials. But not always. Here in this sermon He even addresses a hypothetical listener as a hypocrite (7:5). This would seem to imply that anyone is a potential hypocrite.
We can all have humorous mental pictures of the persons in Jesus’ illustrations blowing their horns before they drop their money in the bucket, praying loudly on the street corners or in the synagogue (church?), walking around looking mournful and half starved. We know people like this! But don’t we all have this tendency? I do!
So how do I even know if and when I’m play-acting? Well, it seems that the questions we need to ask are for whom am I doing this? (Or perhaps, who is my audience?); and, what reward do I expect to get from all this?
Jesus says that if I’m just doing this to be seen by people, just doing it for appearance sake, then their applause is all the reward I get!
So what is Jesus’ solution to this problem? It seems pretty simple. (It’s simple, not easy; there is a difference.) Just make sure that you’re doing your religious deeds in a way that no one can see and applaud. Don’t let anyone know how much you give. Pray in secret. Look as normal as possible when you fast.
I don’t believe Jesus is forbidding public prayer or public offerings or even letting people know about our fasting. We could, however, regard His injunctions as tests or even exercises to ascertain our motives.
And He promises rewards. Not from people, but from our Heavenly Father, though He doesn’t tell us here what those rewards are. Guess we’ll have to wait.