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02.28.16 Becoming a Closet Christian Matthew 6:1-18 Sermon Summary

by on March 1, 2016

If you’re one of those Christians who doesn’t observe Lent, or one who only observes Lent, it might surprise you to discover that Jesus called us to observe Lent all year long.

Summary Points

  • Why Lent is an all-year observance for disciples of Christ
  • What hypocrisy is, and why Jesus’s disciples shouldn’t be hypocrites
  • How almsgiving can guide our lives according to God’s will
  • What we pray about and why: Needs, hurts, and worries
  • The value of fasting from food, sex, routine, entertainment, and technology

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is his description of life in the Kingdom of God, which means it’s also a description of what it means to be a Christian. In this section, Jesus makes two assumptions: (1) His Father rewards acts of piety; and (2) his disciples will practice acts of piety, but in a particular way.

The traditional Lenten acts of piety—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—are emphasized this time of year because it is a season of returning to God. Those who are coming to the church for the first time, or returning after a time away, practice the Lenten disciplines to prepare to be incorporated into the Body of Christ at Easter. But Jesus recognizes no such distinction: He assumes his disciples will practice the Lenten disciplines not just at Lent, but throughout their lives.

And he teaches his disciples to practice these acts of piety in a particular way, according to his teaching. If we do not, he says, we forfeit the reward reserved for those of us who, with Jesus, call upon God as “Father.” The overriding principle is our motive: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says. “For then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

He begins with a discussion about almsgiving. The word “alms,” which you only hear in church, is originally related to the word “mercy.” As God has shown mercy to us, so we are to show mercy to others. How charitable we are actually reflects our beliefs about God’s generosity to us.

So Jesus teaches that we are to give alms “in secret,” so that our Father, “who sees in secret, will reward” us. Sometimes we say, “God works in mysterious ways,” normally when we don’t understand something or we don’t see the big picture. But we might better say that, “God works in secret ways.” It doesn’t have to be a mysterious, big picture issue. God is always working—through the big and small. This is why Jesus is so impressed with the widow’s offering of only two pennies. How much or how little one gives is less important than “how in the heart” one gives.

Jesus observed others, not the widow, who gave as “hypocrites.” That word originally referred to an actor. Actors have audiences, and as with all good actors, those who give as hypocrites have their audiences in mind. Hypocrites have many audience members, which may include God, but certainly includes others as well. Our audience may even include ourselves as we take pride in our charitable giving. That’s why Jesus says there must be secrecy even between our own hands. Like Jesus, his disciples are to have only one audience member.

This one-audience-member perspective is helpful not only as we make our offerings, but when we’re discerning what “faithfulness” means in our lives. We can conduct our lives on the stage with many audience members in mind, trying to please them all. Or we can do so with only one audience member in mind—the one who will judge our performance according to his calling.

And this is especially critical when that calling includes suffering. Jesus wouldn’t have endured the Cross had he not kept God as his one audience member. This reveals the long-term application of Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving—it’s to prepare us to live our entire lives seeking the reward of our Father who sees and rewards in secret.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus adds something. As in almsgiving, his disciples are to pray in secret, for one audience member, and not as the hypocrites do, for many audience members. But Jesus also says our words are to be few, because God already knows what we need before we ask him.

So why do we pray?

Jesus teaches us to pray about three things: Needs, hurts, and worries. Needs are things that God provides, but that people still don’t have. These include community, housing, food, security, and the basic things required to maintain them. When I pray with this understanding of needs, it decreases my laundry list and increases my contentment.

Hurts are those pains we feel in our bodies or in our feelings—and those pains we cause for others. This is why Jesus calls us to reconciliation with others and not just God. It’s why the Lord’s Prayer, and especially its concluding comment in the Sermon, urges us to forgive others as the measure of God’s forgiveness of us.

And worries are the thoughts we have that cause us to forget God. The reason we pray about needs, hurts, and worries, even though God knows about them already, is so that we don’t forget that God is with us through our deficits, healing, and anxieties.

Jesus’ final instruction in this section is on the discipline of fasting. Fasting often accompanies prayer. Abstaining from food serves to remind us of the fundamental truth as Jesus experienced it in his trial in the wilderness, namely that we do not live by bread alone, but by God’s Word. This truth applies to many other parts of life from which we may abstain.

For example, Paul advises couples to abstain from sexual relations. This reminds them that their relationship is more than sex. Some of us need to fast from routine because life is more than being in control. We could benefit from fasting from entertainment because life is more than amusement. Or from technology because life is more than knowledge and keeping up.

Here the point is that when we ask, the Holy Spirit will reveal an issue for our own fasting. For each of us there is something that, if we fasted from it for a time, would remind us of our dependence on God. When we fast, Jesus says, don’t do so like the hypocrites, but do so in secret, for the audience of one, and God will work in the mysterious, secret way to reward you.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • As you think about your own acts of piety, who are the members of your audience? Ask yourself, “Do I feel slighted when I give something and aren’t recognized for it?”
  • Do you offer prayers “in secret” and with as few words as possible? What do you think about the definitions of “needs, hurts, and worries?” Make a list of your needs, hurts, and worries according to these definitions. How can these perspectives guide your own prayers?
  • Share something from which you would benefit from fasting. Abstain from this for a reasonable time and observe what happens.



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