Seeking the Father’s Reward - Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18

Among the sculptures created by Michelangelo is the Pieta, translated “The Pity.” The sculpture depicts the slain body of Jesus lying in the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. Today the sculpture sits in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. Shortly after the sculpture was placed there, Michelangelo overheard someone saying that it had been created not by him, but another sculptor – one of his rivals. So, that evening, in anger, he carved these words into the sash which runs across Mary’s chest: "Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this.” We naturally want the credit – the recognition and the praise of people – for the things we do.

 
Seeking the Father's Reward - Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18
 

Even in our obedience to the commands of God, we tend to enjoy the praise of others.Today, Jesus warns us of that tendency within our hearts, because it’s not right.

But God redeems his people by his grace so that we may perform righteous deeds – yet not for our own praise. There is great reward in obeying God, and we should desire the reward, but praise from people is not the reward. If we seek that reward, Jesus says there will be no reward from God, from the Father himself.

And so, we need to be cautious of our motives as we do “righteous things.” But what kinds of “righteous” things can we find ourselves doing with selfish motives? Here, Jesus talks about three things: generosity, prayer, and fasting.

These were the three chief acts of Jewish devotion or religious behavior in the early first century A.D. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus addresses all three here together. We need to “beware.” Jesus presents an “either/or” scenario with each one.

Either “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” or doing those acts to receive a “reward from your Father who is in heaven.” There is the reward of people’s recognition, or the reward of the Father.

Interestingly, Jesus is modifying the Jews’ view of God in that God as Father was not a central Old Testament theme. God is compared to a father in the Old Testament, but is spoken to as “Father” in the personal way in which Jesus refers to him here.

In fact, it is with the coming of Jesus that God begins to be addressed commonly as Father. God is transcendent – superior and high above you – but also, he is immanent, or near, to us. Jesus presents God as present with us and involved, knowable and personal. He’s not so far removed from you that he doesn’t see what you’re doing. So, verse [2], Jesus says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.

This giving was “almsgiving.” It was specifically directed toward the poor. Now, national times of fasting were proclaimed by the blowing of trumpets. So, during those times, everyone would know that everyone else was fasting.

But when you give money to those in need, don’t announce it and make a spectacle of it because naturally, we want the credit for what we’ve done. You’ll notice in each of these three sections, the language is repetitive. Each section says, “when” you do something. So it is assumed that you will do these things. Also, each section refers to “hypocrites.” At one time in the Greek language, that word referred to actors or performers, but in Jesus’ day it was used to refer to people who were putting on a show, so to speak – people playing a role, trying to portray themselves as something in society.

These hypocrites that Jesus refers to are playing the role of the godly or religious both in the places of worship and around the city. They know that such behavior impresses people.They know how to draw praise out of people and elicit applause from them.

Have you ever been to a performance, a concert or a play, and you could tell that the performers knew how to work the crowd and impress you. After all, that’s why you put down your hard-earned money. In 2014, my wife and I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert, obviously in the twilight of their careers, yet still these outstanding showman. They were mesmerizing, especially the late Tom Petty in how he interacted with the audience. He knew how to make us respond with cheers and applause. In fact, there was a man standing next to me, and when Tom Petty began to play the famous intro to one of his songs, without even thinking I let out this loud yell, and it startled the man and he looked at me like I was crazy! But most everyone screamed and cheered at that moment. Tom Petty knew how to make folks gush with praise and applaud for him. And I imagine it made him feel pretty good.

The hypocrites were skilled at getting praise. They loved the feeling of being seen as religious. But Jesus says, Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. In other words, that’s all the return they will ever have for what they’ve done.

There will be no reward from the living God. Verse [3] But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4] so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Jesus doesn’t say what the reward from God is. It’s obviously not public recognition. But knowing Jesus, we can be sure that it is a God-centered reward. It involves closeness with the Father. He may be in heaven, yet he’s near to his children.

In Acts 20, the apostle Paul said “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Giving is wonderful. But if you’re giving to the needy to be seen and praised by others, are you giving to give? No, you’re giving to receive. But you might say, “Well, hold on Stacey, you said it’s good to desire God’s reward.”

It is. But God’s reward is God himself. It’s a God-centered reward. It’s his nearness and all the comfort, peace, hope, strength and rest that comes with being close to him. Ask yourself – why do you give? Especially this time of year when we see more opportunities to give to people in need.

What’s your motivation? Is it to feel good about yourself? Is it to alleviate your guilt over your materialism? Is it to show others how spiritual you are? Or it is a response born out of the knowledge that you are needy, that you are poor? On his deathbed, Martin Luther had a scrap of paper in his pocket. It did not say, “saved by faith alone.” It said, “We are beggars – this is true.” We have no righteousness of our own. We beg at the cross, and we receive from Jesus, who’s only desire was to do the will of his Father in heaven.

Not only did the hypocrites love to be generous in public, but they loved to pray in public.

Jesus says, verse [5] “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. Sounds a lot like the previous verses. Sounds repetitive. Jesus is stressing the point. People out here putting on a show for applause. “Look at how I give. Listen to how I talk to God.” Their motive is clear. But Jesus says, verse [6] But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Jesus isn’t doing away with public prayer. He prayed publicly. We should pray publicly.

For that reason, our pastoral prayer is essential to our worship service. It’s the motive that is in question. On a personal note, one reason I appreciate the pastoral prayer is that it always causes me to think about my own private prayer life as a pastor. Sunday during worship shouldn’t be the bulk of my prayer each week. But the same applies to you. The apostle Paul said, “pray without ceasing.” Our Pastoral prayer should help you in your private prayer throughout the week.

This private prayer is what concerns Jesus. Meet with your heavenly Father in private. And verse [7] “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. [8] Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. The pagans thought they needed to inform their gods of what they needed. They imagined that their gods were like themselves. The one true God, Yahweh, is not like us, thankfully. He knows everything before we ask. He’s omniscient – all-knowing.

Early on in my walk with God, I had this idea that I had to phrase things a certain way

when praying. That’s how incantations work. You know, magic spells or charms. Like mixing up a potion where the ingredients have to be just right. “Recite these words, just like this, say them over and over, conjure the power from beyond.” But prayer is not a magic spell that forces God to do something because of how we word things.

He’s a father, Jesus says. It’s personal. He’s a person. And like any personal relationship – parent to child, spouse to spouse, friend to friend – God is not interested in babbling and carrying on for show.

It doesn’t impress him. He desires the meaningful, sincere pouring-out of the hearts of his children to him. Any good parent rejoices when their child wants to pour out his or her heart in need. And the parent desires to meet that need. God, our Father, meets our deepest of needs, by giving to us Himself. Repeated in the Old Testament we see that God is our inheritance, our portion, the reward of those who trust in him.

When you pray in front of others, what propels you? Is it humility, is it the love of God? Or are you more concerned with how you sound to the people around you? I find that sometimes folks don’t feel comfortable praying aloud in a group. I can understand that. But I would encourage you to step out in faith and do it anyway.

Be cautious of your motives, but pray simple, bold, sincere prayers. And remember that your short prayer among your brothers and sisters in Christ should be only a small sample of how you speak to God throughout your private life everyday.

Jesus goes into detail about how to pray, and next Sunday we’ll look exclusively at those verses,but notice with verses 16-18 that Jesus applies this same thinking to the act of fasting. The Jews had national fasts, as I said earlier. We don’t have prescribed fasts in the New Testament church, although it wouldn’t be wrong to give a church-wide invitation to fast for a short season to demonstrate humility before God and tame our worldly appetites and to hunger more for God himself. We should fast.

Jesus assumes we will just like he assumes we will give and pray. Personally, at various times in my walk with God I’ve fasted and it was hard. I discovered wrong motives and my own sinful attitude. But it was tremendously beneficial. Sometimes abstaining from food, sometimes from other things in life, to focus more effort on interfacing with the Father and seeking to know his will. I encourage you to do it – read about it, slowly work your way into it.

But as with these other things, Jesus says be cautious of why you’re doing it. Verse [16] “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. They are hungry, denying their appetites. Might not feel strong and energetic. At that time, the Jews would put ash or dirt on their faces to show that they were fasting. But Jesus says, Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [17] But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.”

Basically, practice normal hygiene. Keep it between you and God. Why? Verse [18] that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Earlier I told you about Michelangelo’s Pieta. He went back to his amazing sculpture, and carved his name across the front of it. Try to imagine the Mona Lisa with “Leonardo Da Vinci” printed across her chest. It would be strange. The Pieta is the only one of Michelangelo’s works that he ever signed because he regretted the prideful act of carving his name acrous Mary’s sash and he swore to never again sign his work. He has a visible reminder of his own pride and self-centered motivation. Jesus is warning his people of that kind of motivation. But why? Because God can have no part of pride. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

This year for thanksgiving I smoked my first turkey. It turned out pretty good. We all filled our plates and sat down to dig in, and about halfway through the meal, I noticed the big bowl of gravy that my wife had made. I thought, “oh no I forgot the gravy.” So, poured some on my turkey and my dressing. It was good. The food didn’t need the gravy, but it was tasty. But imagine if everyone sat down to eat and all I had was a big bowl of gravy. It would taste good, and it would offer some immediate satisfaction, but I would soon be hungry again. And on top of that, there would be no nutritional value.

That’s kind of life the relationship between the praise of people and the pleasure of God. If you experience the public reward of the praise of people, and experience the secret reward of the pleasure of God, you will discover that they don’t compare. It’s not even close. People’s recognition is like gravy. It’s nice, savory, immediately satisfying, but no long-term value. Really, you can do without it. To give and pray and fast only to know and please the Father is a fantastic meal. Deep fellowship with God is a feast. Psalm 63, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.”

The proud and the humble think and live in what almost seems like two different worlds. It is something of an alternate reality to walk humbly with the living God.

You may feel that in your life you’ve been torn down, hurt, disappointed, betrayed, abandoned. You may feel shame or regret. You may have a strong sense of your own weakness. But if so, you are not far from true humility. Any of those could propel you toward pride, but the message of the cross propels us to humility. Jesus Christ lived a righteous life with pure motives, satisfying God’s requirements for us.

Do you rest in his finished work? Have you turned from your sin, and do you turn from it daily to know him deeply? As we go to the table today, we need to remember the message of the cross. 1 Corinthians 1 says, [18] For the (message) of the cross is (foolishness) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.D.A. Carson says this about that verse: “By the cross, God sets aside and shatters all human pretensions to strength and wisdom. This is the central theme of Scripture.”

Let’s pray together.