Getting Life Right: RIGHTEOUSNESS HAS ITS REWARDS—Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18
***In a commercial for a credit card, a young man and woman are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The man is handing his credit card to the server, who looks soberly at the young lady, saying, “You know, he’s using you. He gets reward points for paying.” Of course, if the man is paying the bill to get reward points he is losing money. More importantly, if he is using the young lady to get reward points, he is losing the possibility of an enduring relationship. Rewards miss the point.**
WHAT REWARDS DO WE HOPE TO GET FROM RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY?
SOME RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY IS DONE TO IMPRESS PEOPLE.
Matthew 6:1, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Acts of righteousness could be going to church, feeding the hungry, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or even serving your family. All good things!
Yet Jesus pointed out that these deeds might be a performance for others. (Literally, the Greek word is related to “theatrics.”). That takes some of the shine off.
Jesus gives three examples of how righteous things might be done to IMPRESS PEOPLE.
Matthew 6:2-4 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Most likely the trumpet announcements are hyperbole (obvious exaggeration); Jesus had a subtle sense of humor and a colorful way of speaking. The point is not too far from the truth, however.
***A new inner-city church was moving into a beautiful building that was being vacated by an aged-out congregation. Everywhere I looked in the building, I saw small memorial plaques in honor of the donors. There was even a plaque on the heating system! I found it ironic that the names meant nothing to the new congregation.**
When we give, do we need recognition, or at least something to show for it? The trend today is that people give freely to special projects, but not so much to keep the church doors open and essential ministry alive.
If we serve people, do we expect them to profusely thank us, and tell everyone about the wonderful things we have done for them? Are we part of mutual admiration society, where we all tell each other what wonderful things we have done?
Matthew 6:5-8, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
In today’s world, babbling can take a different twist. You might see requests for prayer on Facebook or a prayer wall, with the goal being how many people will post and pray. If a thousand people post, and 100 pray, is God more inclined to give the answer that is sought? Who is the audience of that kind of behavior?
I don’t think Jesus is telling us not pray in public. Jesus prayed in public, and the early church also did so. Public prayer can be good, especially for those learning to pray. In fact, in the next section of his teaching, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, giving them The Lord’s Prayer.
The danger of public prayer is that we might be more focused on impressing other people than talking honestly with God. We might want people to think we are more spiritual than we are, or even more spiritual than they are.
Long prayers pose a particular danger, as the person who can rattle off many prayer requests gains points with those who want to hear their favorite requests mentioned publicly. Praying specifically is good, but running through names and requests does not impress God as much as it impresses other people.
Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Fasting is giving up something, like food, to seek God. Jesus assumes his disciples will fast, although fasting goes much deeper than giving up chocolate for Lent. The best kind of fasting might not involve giving up anything, but changing behavior:
Isaiah 58:5-7 says, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
If we do fast—skip lunch to give toward hunger, or take a break from coffee to pray—what are our motives? Are we trying to manipulate God, or impress people with our sacrifice?
------If we act to impress other people, our reward will be only what people can give us.
Three times, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”
Maybe people will notice what we did, and think better of us. Maybe will recognize us publicly, or even lift us up as an example of a “good Christian.” If that it is what we want, we will either be pleased when they do it, or disappointed when they don’t.
It could be that the person we are trying to impress is ourself!
Jesus says in verse 3, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” Hyperbole again, and the point is clear: Don’t be too impressed by your own righteousness.
Giving has its own rewards. We might feel good about our generosity or doing something worthwhile. We might ease our guilt about not doing enough, or we might think we are better than others.
Yet the rewards don’t ultimately satisfy. We feel good about what we gave, but we could have done more. We gave to make a difference, but the impact was not what we hoped. The idea of serving sounded good, but it was more work than we expected.
If our goal is the rewards we get from others or the satisfaction we gain, can we expect God also to reward us? Jesus says no: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
GOD REWARDS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Three times, Jesus says, “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
What kind of reward are we seeking from God?
There is no shortage of preachers who teach that giving (to them!) will be rewarded with financial blessings, health, and success.
Some people pray because they hope “prayer works,” and it will get them what they want. James 4:3 does not encourage that kind of self-centered prayer: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Some people expect that if they are “good Christians,” going to church and doing good deeds, God will be sure to reward them with a nice life, full of health and happiness.
Others do good deeds in the hope of greater honor or privilege in heaven.
***As one person said to his pastor, “Every night that I work sets another jewel in my heavenly crown. I’ve already got 7,175 in a row.” (Wayne Brouwer, quoting Thielecke) I think it would take a big head to carry that crown around!**
When James and John asked for a place of honor and power in heaven, Jesus rebuked them, because they were seeking a reward for self-gratification.
Are these the kinds of rewards God wants us to seek?
***C.S. Lewis spoke of two kinds of reward-seekers, using the analogy of marriage. “A man who marries for money is a golddigger. A man who marries for love is honorable.”**
Our greatest reward is a righteous life with God.
The ultimate reward God gives is eternal life in heaven, where all is made right. Paul expresses that hope in 2 Timothy 4:8, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” The ultimate reward is life with God, and it is a life where all is RIGHT, all is RIGHTEOUS.
In this life, the greatest reward is when our future life with God is brought into the present:
When we pray, Jesus told us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In our spiritual exercises, our goal is to be with God, whether we are fasting, meditating on the word of God, or serving others in the name of Jesus.
In our giving, we are immersed in the grace of God, as we pass on God’s gifts to others.
Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 9:8-11, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work…He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
The giving, the praying, the seeking are rewarded with the ultimate prize: a deeper experience of life with our gracious, righteous, loving Father.
Jesus promised that our Father will reward us in our righteous actions.
If we believe our Father rewards those who pray, we will pray continually for his kingdom to come in us, in our families, and in the entire world.
If we believe our Father rewards those who give, we will give generously, to be immersed in God’s gracious giving to all.
If we believe the greatest reward is God himself, we will spend time with him, leaving other things behind to purify our hearts, for as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Jesus promised that our Father, who sees all that we do, will reward us. And the greatest reward is a righteous life with God.