“Mind your Motives” by Interim Pastor Tim Morphew
Something about Jesus drew people to him. He came back from 40 days of testing in the wilderness and “began to proclaim, ‘Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!’ ” [4:17]
And (Mt. 4:23-25) Jesus [went around], teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So [that] his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics & paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Jesus taught and healed all over the place and great crowds followed him where-ever he went.
And soon Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down, as rabbi’s do when they’re going to teach a lesson. His disciples draw near and the crowd gathers round. This summer at Creekside church, we draw near, with Jesus’ first followers to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and to consider what it means to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom – starting now and for the rest of our lives!
Today we hear 3 lessons on giving, praying and fasting. And Jesus introduces these 3 lessons with this summary statement [Matthew 6:1] ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
And the examples that Jesus gives are almost like three verses of the same song. You noticed the pattern didn’t you?
Don’t make a big “show” of it when you give alms or pray or fast, like the hypocrites do. ‘Hypocrites.’ Jesus warns us NOT to act like the hypocrites do…
Preacher and Professor Jerry Taylor offers this instructive analysis of the word, “hypocrite”.
“In the first century when Matthew lived, actors in the theater were known as ‘hypocrites.’ They were stage actors acting out the parts of a character in a play. It was custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks painted to represent the character they were portraying. They used mechanical devices to [amplify] the force of their voices. They were not being themselves in the public eye, only impersonating [someone else].
[So] a ‘hypocrite’ is a person who masks his or her real self while he or she plays a part to capture the undivided attention of his/her audience.”
Thus, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus warns his followers about ‘religious’ people who use pious acts of worship to impress others. Their public acts of giving or praying or fasting are little more than an act to make themselves look good. Acts of piety that are only an act, a mask to cover their (hidden) yearning for the praise of others.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Why do we give alms or pray or fast? Do you know why you do such acts of faith and devotion??
Bob Bowman, in his Covenant Bible Study guide on the Sermon on the Mount calls his chapter on today’s verses “Testing Our Motives” and you can tell that I really borrowed from Bob for the title of my message to you this morning. Bob points his readers to three great thinkers: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche – masters of the school of suspicion who counsel us to be suspicious of our own motives.
To tell the truth, I find it a lot easier to be suspicious of other people’s motives. You have heard me hint that I might not always think or act like Jesus when I’m driving. It is true. Maybe you know how I think. The person who speeds past me or cuts into my lane is rude, thoughtless, self-centered. And the person for whom I have to slow down is incompetent, impaired or other bad things that a Christian is not supposed to think about others… It’s easy for me to think ill of other drivers who fail to measure up to my standards of good driving. But someone once suggested that I wonder/consider what might make a person speed past me: maybe they have an emergency, maybe they’re hurrying to the hospital, maybe they need to pick up a birthday cake before the bakery closes. Maybe they have good reasons to hurry.
But Jesus warns about acts of love and devotion. Jesus urges us to examine – to be suspicious of our own motives in our acts of worship and devotion. And he cites three classic devotional practices: giving to charity, prayer and fasting.
As we noted, Jesus three examples are like 3 verses of one song. And his counsel is a powerful way for Christians to really test our motives if we can make ourselves do it.
“3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret.
“whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…
“when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret…
That’s the test: to do our acts of devotion in secret! – Just between God and you… Just between God & me. Are your spiritual practices already secret? Just between God & you?? Maybe so. I don’t know… I guess I haven’t really heard any trumpets on Sunday morning when people drop their offerings in the collection boxes. I have no idea which Creekside folks fast. Not a clue! We do pray out loud together and I want to talk about prayer some more next week.
I don’t have any observations about how the rest of you pray. I do – often – remember Jesus’ warning when preparing to offer a public prayer. I trust the Bible students/scholars who say that Jesus isn’t saying Christians should never pray together in public. It is good to pray together. But always remember we’re simply opening our hearts and souls to God. If we’re focused on what others will think of our prayers or our giving or our fasting, our acts of devotion are out of focus, focused in the wrong direction.
That’s why doing our acts of love and devotion in secret can help to drive our egos out of our devotional practices! The question to which secret giving, secret fasting and secret praying drives us is: who is it for? For whom, to whom are our giving and our fasting and our praying addressed?
Do you hear that? When we give secretly, when we fast secretly, when we pray in private places, if we can sit long enough in the silence, we may hear a question like, “what are you doing here?” What do you want? But we have to get quiet enough to listen…
Have you ever tried to listen to God before spilling out everything that’s on your heart and mind? You know? Like old friends who are so comfortable with each other that they can be quiet together without needing to say anything?
What if our prayers begin with listening sisters and brothers? What if our giving is just between us and God, and our fasting a private practice that only makes us hungrier for more of God in our lives??
When we take time to be quiet with God, to wait for God…
Ohhh… sometimes I can’t tell that anything happened. But quiet time with God is never lost, because it’s good practice. Try resting quietly and listening for the voice of God… Whether or not you feel closer to God in such moments, you’ll get a little better at waiting for God…
And sometimes if we can get out of sight, and do our devotional practices in secret, we can really pay attention to our motives & find out if they are aimed in the right direction.
Jesus warns us to mind our motives and then concludes his 3 warnings with 3 promises, which also echo each other..
[Let] your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
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.
[Let] your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Your Father, Our God, who knows all things, who sees in secret will reward you… What’s that like?? I can only imagine. – Or give you my best guess:
Maybe it’s like those old friends that I mentioned earlier, or those couples who have gotten really good at marriage. They go walking hand in hand. And they simply enjoy being together. They don’t need words to enjoy each other’s company. You see them sitting on a bench and you can tell that they are completely comfortable with each other…
Maybe when we devote ourselves to secret acts of love and devotion to God, we get closer to that kind of a relationship with the God of Eternity who knows each of us as well as we know ourselves… When our acts of love and devotion are for God and no one else, our relationship with God is deepened. Until you know that you can’t impress God and there’s not much point in trying to impress anybody else.
What is it that makes life really good? It is what God gives those who enjoy a great relationship with the Author and Perfecter of all things. Practice aiming our acts of love and devotion at GOD and no-one else and the God Who sees in secret will reward us in ways that the world cannot give, neither can it take away…
A very smart businessman, who was a member of a church I served had a business from which I bought various products several times a year. He always treated me more than fairly. He bought and sold great volumes, so when I asked for a bucket-full of this or that, he often gave it to me. If I wanted a truck-load, he pretty often deducted any delivery fee. I offered to pay, he refused to take my money. Jim always treated me better than I deserved.
On the side, Jim started dabbling in repairable wrecks. And launched a business going to auto auctions, buying repairing and selling cars that insurance companies had totaled out.
When Dan Kibet, our Kenyan Goshen College student needed help getting his wrecked car road-worthy again, we asked Jim to help us and he tracked down the parts and patched together Kibet’s little Ford Focus. He went out of his way to get the car going again. It wasn’t pretty. But it was affordable. And it got Kibet where he was going.
So, when Kibet’s friend Kiprop wanted to buy a car, we sent Kiprop to Jim because we knew he would treat Kiprop fairly. And he did. Now Kiprop and Kibet have graduated and moved on with their lives, but they’re still driving the cars that Jim sold to them.
When Kibet had saved enough for a nicer, newer car, he bought it from Jim, because we all knew that we could trust Jim. Unfortunately, we forgot to check Kibet’s new car for a spare tire and jack. Now that’s how it works with repairable wrecks. Somebody takes everything of value that can be sold separately: spare tire, jack, second key fob, manuals…
We asked Jim to help us to find those missing parts for Kibet’s new (to him) car and a couple of weeks later, he called to say that he had the spare and the jack that Kibet needed. I drove down to Jim’s shop to get those parts and asked Jim how much we owed him. He said nothing.
I protested, “No, please, we want to pay you for them.” It’s only fair. I remember so clearly how he answered,
“No, if you paid me I’d lose my blessing.”
“If I let you pay me, I’d lose my blessing.”
And I didn’t know what to say, so, on Kibet’s behalf, I accepted Jim’s gift. “If I let you pay me, I’d lose my blessing.”
Now it might not be an exact fit for today’s scripture lesson, but I invite you to consider it… I think it aims in the right direction. Car parts aren’t exactly alms or prayer or fasting, but finding and getting the right parts for Kibet’s car was a kindness and a gift to him. Kibet could have paid for the parts, but Jim knew that Kibet had limited resources. Besides he was sending money back to his family in Kenya.
So Jim did the work to track down the parts we needed, gave them to Kibet and quietly refused to let me pay for them. A gift in secret…
Does God bless people like Jim who extend such kind-nesses in the driveway, when no-one is watching but God??
Charles Spurgeon, one of the most popular and powerful preachers of the 1800’s is credited with this story:
“Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over every-thing in a land. It happened that one of his subjects grew an enormous carrot. The man took the carrot to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go, the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I want to give a plot of land to you freely as a gift, so you can garden it all.” The gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing.
But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this, and he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot, what if you gave the king something better?” The next day the nobleman came before the king, and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses, and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said, “Thank you,” and took the horse and simply dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed, so the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.” Who are your acts of love and devotion aimed at? For whom do you do them?? Sisters and Brothers, let our acts of love and devotion to God be in secret and the God who sees in secret will reward us in ways that the world cannot give, and can never take away! AMEN!