Wednesday, August 24, 2016

24 August 2016
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1 (NIV 1984)

“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.” Psalms 91:1-2 (KJV)
            Good morning, and welcome. Today we will discuss public vs. private piety, and why Jesus says our acts of righteousness should be done in private. The three practices mentioned-almsgiving, prayer, and fasting-were an important part of 1st century Jewish life, three pillars of piety. Jesus warns not to be like the hypocrites who put on a good show, solely to receive public acclaim.
            Hypocrite is an interesting word. It refers to one who pretends to have moral or religious beliefs, or a public attitude, that they do not actually possess. Its root is in a Greek word referring to a stage actor-one pretending to be what he is not. Stage actors in ancient Greece would wear different masks depending on what part they were playing, none of which were their true selves. Once again, Jesus is teaching heart attitudes. He is saying acts of righteousness should be just that-acts of righteousness. These are private transactions; business done between us and our Heavenly Father; whatever reward we receive will be determined and given by Him alone. Speaking of reward, let’s take a minute or two and consider these three piety pillars individually and maybe put this reward business in perspective.
            Alms-giving-helping the poor and needy-was a pretty big deal back then. Remember, there were no social safety nets. If misfortune befell you-if your husband died, or if you were force to sell your land or if it was taken from you unjustly or any number of other things-you were on your own. If you were a widow things were just that much worse. There is another side to alms-giving that has continued to this day-the practice of promoting one’s own self-interest through what we would call ‘charitable donations’.
             Now, this in itself is not necessarily bad. Consider the centurion in Luke 7 who built the synagogue. In the United States alone there is a very long list of wealthy individuals who have funded colleges, universities, medical centers, museums, churches and synagogues and all kinds of good stuff. Jesus is talking about something a little different. The reward sought out by the hypocrites is the only one they get-maybe the only one they really want. On the other hand, those who give out of a sincere heart, thus demonstrating Kingdom life, receive the Father’s blessing both here and in eternity. They are not to be concerned with publicity or positive press.
            The same principle applies to prayer and fasting. Now, there is a time and place in corporate worship for prayer and offerings. Years ago I was a member of a relatively small church that was blessed with an extremely effective prayer ministry. Every Sunday, as part of the regular order of worship, there would be a call for joys and concerns. Prayers were offered, people were healed and all manner of good things were done and seen as these prayers were answered. The person praying was not important-the pastor, a liturgist, a visiting pastor, didn’t matter. When that congregation prayed God listened. Again, we are talking about intent-individual prayers offered as public displays of piety. And again, the verdict is the same. By the way, I personally believe corporate prayer begins with private prayer-being on good speaking terms with God. If you only practice one discipline ever, I believe prayer is the one. One more quick thing about corporate prayer-it is prayer, not another sermon. We are letting our praise and thanksgiving and requests be made known to God, not putting our personal theology or political inclinations or anything else on display. Just sayin.
            Fasting doesn’t get much publicity today. As a discipline, we could practice fasting with any number of things from food to cell phones to TV to Facebook. The underlying idea here, apart from the obvious public display, is fasting should not make us miserable. Giving up some distraction (or food) in order to draw near to God should be a joyful thing that carries its own peacefulness, its own reward.  Fasting is one of those things that is easy to practice at first but grows increasingly more difficult if you try to do it regularly. There’s a ton of literature out there now on fasting-spiritual and medical. If you would like to try it, do some digging first. And don’t tell anyone.
            We’ve been talking about three classic Spiritual Disciplines here-giving (or tithing, if you prefer), prayer, and fasting, tied together by an attitude of humility and meekness. And secrecy. The Renovare Spiritual Bible defines the discipline of secrecy as keeping our good works from being generally known. The benefit is in keeping in check our desire for recognition. So, if you like, pick one of these three disciplines and practice it in conjunction with secrecy. Not necessarily in total secrecy-you might want a partner, maybe your spouse or close friend. Two of you is probably ok, but no more than that. Try it for a week or two or three and pay attention to what happens to your desire to be recognized, to receive the credit you deserve. Pay attention to your inner attitude towards the discipline you are practicing. Spending time alone with God is often its own reward. Tomorrow we look at The Lord’s Prayer.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you in all you do. JRG

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