Summary: Piety should not be on public display; this doesn't mean that Christianity should be practiced in private.
An old joke says, people would be equally shocked if they saw Christianity doubted or saw it practiced. Of course nowadays lots more people openly doubt Christianity than they used to, but I don’t think many more people openly practice Christianity than they used to. At least not in this country. But I do think that a lot of people still practice Christianity more openly than privately.
Let me say that another way. I think a lot of people practice Christianity more for public consumption than they do for real, heartfelt commitment to Jesus Christ.
That has always been the case.
There have always been people who do not have any authentic spiritual center who practice their religion for the benefit of an admiring public. It doesn’t have to be even called a religion to fill the function - Communist leaders in the Soviet Union weren’t always true believers in Marxist-Leninism, either. But they perform their sacrifices, say their prayers, burn their incense, show up at meetings, sing the camp song - do whatever ritual is required by the culture. It’s the dues you pay in order to stay in the club. It’s how you keep your standing in the system
People who do religious things just to look good are called hypocrites. It’s a Greek word meaning someone who is playing a part, wearing a mask. Jesus condemned it roundly, wherever he encountered it. And nowadays hypocrisy seems to be one of the worst sins in the dictionary, right under intolerance. There’s good reason for this; hypocrites do a great deal of damage. How many
times have you heard someone say they don’t go to church because it’s so full of hypocrites? On the other hand, as the 17th c. French philosopher Le Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” There is one good thing you can say about hypocrites: they acknowledge “the good” at least to the extent of wanting to fake it.
No, the problem with hypocrites isn’t what they do. It’s that the things they do have no connection to reality, no connection to God, so that the things that they do get connected with hypocrisy, which is visible, rather than with God, who isn’t.
There were a lot of “religious” things that were done in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the Reformers like Luther and our own Presbyterian ancestor Calvin and his disciple John Knox got rid of. Well, the Lutherans didn’t go as far as the Presbyterians did. The English Puritans - who were actually mostly Congregational - trashed some of the most beautiful church architecture in the world, calling the statuary and stained glass windows and so on idolatry, that is the
worship of the created rather than the creator.
But our Book of Order specifically affirms using all of the arts to enhance worship, to bring glory to our creator through the use of all our gifts. So we’ve come back to a better balance in our view of the arts.
In the same way some spiritual disciplines have gone through periods of being out of favor, disciplines like fasting and prayer and alms-giving. Now, Christians everywhere pray and give and sing and study Scripture and gather for worship. But the idea of these things as disciplines, that is part of a spiritual training program, is not particularly in favor largely because of our fear of being inauthentic, or being hypocrites. We want our relationship with God to come from the heart, not be a duty, something that we can put on and take off. And
this is an admirable goal. Because all of these practices can become substitutes for genuine religion, instead of a means to draw closer to God. They can be used to try to earn points with God, to try to make God do what we want him to do. Or - one step further away from God - they can even be used to impress people with our religiosity. But that’s not what Jesus teaches in this passage from Matthew.
Jesus doesn’t teach us to beware of the practices of prayer, and alms-giving, and fasting. Jesus just says, don’t do it for public consumption. Don’t do it because other people expect you to, or because other people admire you for it.
Because your motivation determines what you’ll get out of it. If you pray, or give, or fast, or never miss a Sunday, or know your Bible chapter and verse so that people will admire you, people will admire you. You will be applauded. But that’s all you’ll get.
"So do not give alms, as the hypocrites do... so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward... And do not pray like the hypocrites, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 'And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, showing others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their