Summary: How should we practice our faith in a way that honors God?
In the previous verses of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ emphasis on how the Scribes and Pharisees had failed to teach the whole and intended council of God. They had twisted the Scripture and replaced the righteousness of God with their own standards of righteousness. We saw that they clearly had seen that no one could keep the Law as literally written, at least no fallen man, that is. To this degree, they were correct. So Jesus seems to be harsh when He says that the righteousness he expects from us must exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes. So is Jesus’ comment that whosoever teaches someone to break the least of the Scripture will be called least. He does pronounce a blessing on those who teach and DO everything written in the Law. They will be called great. The problem is identifying if a single person will be great in the Kingdom of God apart from Jesus who both taught and kept the Word of God.
We think of one of the founders of the United Methodist Church, John Wesley, who believed one could achieve perfect sanctification in this life, that is to do and teach every single commandment with a perfect heart and motivation. He thought he found a handful after many years but had to soon scratch most of them off the roll of the perfect. It is important that he never included himself on that list.
We should have learned the lesson by this point that the only way we could stand complete is to stand complete in Jesus Christ and His righteousness. It is only by our identification with Him that we can stand in the presence of the Father.
In chapter 6, there is a shift in emphasis from the deficiency of the doctrine of the Pharisees to the deficiency of their practice. The first in theological terms is that the Pharisees who claimed to be orthodox were far from orthodox. The second which we will be discussing today is called “orthopraxy” or right practice. There is a third term called “orthopathos” or right passion or motivation. This was where the Scribes and Pharisees utterly failed.
Pharisaic Judaism was based upon three pillars. These pillars were alms (charitable giving), prayer, and fasting. To them, the practice of these things marked one out as a true Jew and assured that they were of the elect of God. In this they rightly understood that it took more than birthright in the Jewish nation to be saved. One was not saved or elected merely because they were physically a Jew. The Pharisees looked at other Jews who did not practice these three pillars as either apostate or ignorant rabble.
The Pharisees also believed in being a witness to the Gentiles as well as wayward Jews. They crossed land and sea to make proselytes of them. Part of this witness was their very public profession of their faith. They dressed and acted the part of witnesses. They stood out in the crowd. For this public display of faith, they were admired by other Jews. But they were also subject to ridicule from others for their stance.
In today’s passage, Jesus is again going to seem harsh on the Scribes and Pharisees. What could these Scribes and Pharisees be lacking? Their religion and faith was out in the open. They were bold participants in the marketplace of ideas. Their doctrine might have had a few heresies in it some might reason, but whose doctrine is perfect anyway. Were they at not least modeling the faith and making public testimony of the God of Israel? Were they not doing what Jesus would later tell His disciples to do in the Great Commission, to cross land and sea and make disciples of the Gentile nations and bringing them into the covenant people of God. Were they not doing what we Christians are called to do?
However, Jesus seems here to say quite the opposite. Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when giving alms. Pray in the secrecy of the closet and not in public. Finally, hide the fact that you are fasting from others. In other words, it seems to say on the surface not to make a public profession of one’s faith at all. But if this is so, how could we witness to Jesus Christ and glorify God. How could we make a public profession of Christ if we remain in the closet of home or church? We really need to know what to do here. Jesus seems to be putting us into quite a dilemma.
The answer to the deficiency of the practice of the Scribes and Pharisees lies in the audience they played to. This problem was that their purpose for practicing their faith publicly was to bring glory to themselves rather than God. This is nothing less than robbing God of His glory which is idolatry. There is of course nothing wrong with charitable giving. The Scripture of which neither jot nor tittle can fail both commends and commands acts of charity. The Scripture also calls us to pray and there was at least one prescribed fast and voluntary fasts to be undertaken. And there are many recorded instances of public prayer given in the Scriptures.