03.05.17 The Three Great Lenten Anchors Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 Sermon Summary
Even though Jesus warns us against doing so, there are some rewards of practicing piety before others so they can see us. We may win their admiration. It may produce good feelings within us. It can also cover over social blemishes, like when celebrities engage in charitable works to help us forget their atrocious behavior.
But Jesus tells us that when we practice piety with an eye towards others, we forfeit the Father’s reward. The Father sees what is done in secret and rewards us. What benefit is there in that?
Secrecy implies a very personal relationship. Secret rewards lead to mutual intimacy, friendship, even a love relationship with God. Romantic couples become close by the relationship they share in secret.
The Father’s reward develops particularly Christian identity. Otherwise our identities are determined by social mirroring. We determine who we are by what others think of us. This leads to a fragmented, unstable self. Jesus wants us to be rooted in God’s love, and to grow strong in his image.
The Father’s reward reveals and practices grace. Piety in public has a transactional nature. We expect something for the good we do. But piety in secret rejects this attitude. Secret piety leads to gratitude to God for the rewards we receive from him—rewards not based on merit, which is the definition of grace. But receiving this grace through God’s rewards requires trust.
Take, for example, Jesus’ urging to more silent prayer. “Don’t heap up phrases like the Gentiles do,” he says. “They think they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead, his disciples are to remember that God knows what they need even before they ask.
Jesus’ disciples know the Father, in contrast to the Gentiles who do not. They are not anxious to convince God by their prayers, for they trust that the Father knows what they need—even better than they know themselves. So they are happy to rest in God, to receive from God, and at least listen first, before speaking.
Stephen R. Covey says that Habit 5, “seek first to understand then to be understood,” is the simplest to practice, yields the greatest results, and is the most easily underestimated. But it really does work with people, and it works with God. Jesus calls us to more silence in our prayers, to more listening, so that we may better understand who God is.
In my own prayer practice, I am finding more and more that I have fewer and fewer words. I find I am more often left speechless when I try to pray. This is easier to accept because I have been practicing silent prayer. In silent prayer I trust God, not my own words, and I let the Spirit pray for me as Paul said she would in Romans 8.
And here is a key insight to the concept of discipline. We’re called to spiritual discipline like an athlete is called to physical discipline. Athletes discipline their bodies over and over in practice for when they need their bodies to perform in competition.
Fasting is Jesus’ example. The reason we fast now, by choice as a discipline, is so that when we experience deprivation in the future, we aren’t anxious about it. We won’t doubt God’s providence because we’ve been practicing for this experience by our discipline of fasting. We’ll have cultivated a habit of trusting God’s providence.
And it is vitally important to practice, because a time is coming when the practice will pay off—when prayers cease and eternal praise begins, when our physical appetites no longer determine us, when we’ll have to be as generous as God is. This is why Jesus instructs us in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
We practice living in God’s kingdom now, even in secret, so we can be ready to join others in the kingdom later.