Summary: A message on substanceless piety.
The Rev’d Quintin Morrow
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
According to the Chicago Tribune, a man named Joe from Rockford, Illinois, ran a live Internet sex site called Video Fantasy. Joe had a ten-year-old son. On his home computer Joe installed filtering software to limit the surfing that his son could do on the Internet.
Joe explained, “It’s not that I keep him sheltered, but my wife and I pay close attention to what he reads, what he watches on TV and what he does on the computer because we have a responsibility to him to be the best parents we can.”
Joe’s sense of responsibility to his son is commendable. Joe’s sense of responsibility to the children of other parents (and the parents themselves!) is deplorable.
Can there be a more stark illustration of hypocrisy?
Nobody likes the hypocrite. The hypocrite rates at the bottom of the social ladder somewhere between telemarketers and junk bond salesmen.
We get our English word hypocrite transliterated directly from the Greek word hypocrites. In classical Greek the word was associated with actors who wore masks to play a role. It was a short jump from there for the word to denote pretense, pretending, and deceiving.
The hypocrite does have one unique and distinguishing characteristic: He seems to be singularly able to keep people from attending church. Yet, hundreds of people attend Cowboys and Rangers games who have no interest in what is happening on the field, but only go to drink and socialize, but these hypocrites don’t keep us from the ball park. Dozens are dragged kicking and screaming to cocktail parties, the opera, and the symphony, yet these hypocrites don’t keep us from the parties or Bass Hall. You see my point: We never consider ourselves hypocrites, and we are selective in our distain for hypocrisy in others.
In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we will be examining today, Matthew 6:1-8, 14-18, our Lord Jesus shifts thematic gears and takes aim at hypocrisy. He uses three examples, the giving of alms, praying, and fasting to demonstrate that our spiritual life must first and foremost be a holistic, uncompartmentalized, dynamic, and personal, daily relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and not merely outward performances of piety to impress men.
At this stage in the beginning we must be clear about what a hypocrite is and what he is not. A hypocrite is not a humble Christian who struggles with sin, sometimes falls, asks God for forgiveness, receives it, and gets up, dusts himself off, and tries again. The hypocrite is one who has no personal relationship with God but makes a big show of his piety in public to impress others. One anonymous author defined a hypocrite this way: “A hypocrite can be defined as someone who complains that there is too much sex and violence on his VCR.”
Jesus begins in the first four verses of chapter six with some important instruction on giving alms:
Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
You will find the same pattern throughout this passage. Jesus admonishes us to practice our piety with a concern as to whether God will accept and reward what we do, and not as to whether other men approve or even notice what we are doing. The Lord’s didactic pattern is: “Do such-and-such secretly, trusting the God who sees in secret to reward you, and not openly, that men might praise you.” The religious crowd of Jesus’ day—He calls them hypocrites here in chapter 6, and again, scathingly in chapter 23—used to hire musicians to blow horns before them to alert the crowd that they were coming to give money to the Temple treasury. Jesus said, “Don’t be like them. The public praise they receive from men is all the praise they’re going to get.”
The NKJV translates the old KJV word “alms” with “charitable deeds.” Alms is better, because Jesus is speaking about giving to the Temple and giving to the poor.
And notice Jesus says “When you give alms,” not “If you give alms.” It was an expectation of the followers of Jesus that they would give.
I once heard the story of the Baptist preacher who wrote a Texas oil millionaire and asked for a contribution to help build his church building. The millionaire wrote back and declined, adding: “And as for this Christianity thing, it seems to me that it is nothing but give, give, give.” The preacher wrote back and thanked the millionaire for the best definition of the Christian religion he had ever heard.