"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. - Matthew 6: 1-4 (ESV)
If we thought Jesus teachings in Matthew 5 stepped on some toes, now the Sermon on the Mount picks up even more steam. Despite warning after warning in the Bible there is perhaps no greater pride-filled person than the average Christian. It is no wonder when one considers all that works against us fulfilling the Lord's desire for humility. First of all we have to deal with our flesh, which is constantly opposed to God and wants recognition for whatever "good deeds" we imagine we have carried out.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. - Galatians 5: 16-17 (ESV)
Paul spoke eloquently about this constant war we have within ourselves. Our flesh versus our Spirit. I love listening to the super spiritual crowd who casually refer to vague Christianisms such as "you just have to walk in the Spirit" as a magical balm to solve this ages old dilemma. Most of the super spiritual crowd in churches today must have skipped our key verses when reading their Bibles. They take the front rows, they shout out their pious prayers, or do whatever they can to be seen with the pastor. I remember at my old church there was a period of time where it was considered really spiritual to have Jewish prayer shawl so sure enough they all had them eventually. Was it because they had discovered some deeper prayer level? No. Was it that they had discovered some secret ancient Jewish prayer secret? No. They simply wanted to be seen. Here is today's deep theology beloved. If you pray, worship or act any differently in church than you would at home, you need to ask who you are doing it for. The cold hard reality is the vast majority of people in this scenario are doing it to be seen. Thus their public righteousness is actually self righteousness.
Besides our flesh we have to recognize the impact of our society has on us. To say we live in a narcissistic society is a vast understatement. Nearly everything in marketing is designed around making us feel more special. Even politically there is no humility. When discussing our country it can do no wrong. To criticize is to "hate America" or not understand "American exceptionalism." What is that? It is the political belief taught today that we are simply better than every other nation. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was an attractive fellow who to punish the Gods and because of his general apathy towards everyone else, fell in love with his own image reflected in the mirror. Unfortunately, he could not turn away and soon wasted away and died. I mention this because of the obvious parallels. Narcissism results in a general disdain for others or at least, not caring about them much at all. It very much is a thumb in the eye of God, who created all of mankind in His image. Lastly, it is so captivating that eventually it is all we focus on. Let's face it beloved, we cannot take our eyes off of ourselves sometimes!
A third contributing factor is technology. The advent of modern technology has been a boom for narcissism. Years ago you had to be prudent with your pictures because you only had 24 in a roll. This however is the age of the selfie. In fact, in 2013 the word "selfie"; which was not actually a word at the time, was somehow named word of the year! I read one study that estimated 93 million selfies are taken each day! We are enamored with ourselves. Modern social networking only further facilitates this. Where the Bible says to follow me as I follow Christ the world now says follow me on Twitter! Or Instagram. Or Tumblr. Is there anything potentially more narcissistic than Facebook? We post what we just bought. What we are about to eat. We use satellite technology to post our exact location. Where in the past we used to share our pain with our closest friends we now post our hurts for the world to see. We have turned the word friend on its ear. I have over 400 friends on Facebook yet only a handful in real life! This is even more egregious from Christians! Why? Because we like to pretend our self righteousness is Christ righteousness! I am stunned everyday at what people say "amen" to. We do understand that amen means "so be it." Right? A post that is a random stream of consciousness with pious sounding snippets and Bible verse fragments sprinkled in are not worthy of "so be it."
"God will never leave us so make sure you water what you sow or else the harvest will be stolen by the enemy who fights against the rain falling upon the unjust. Hallelujah..."
Do you know what that meant? Nothing. I was recently called a "Facebook Pharisee" for having the temerity to quote a Bible verse explaining why Justin Bieber should not be preaching just yet at Hillsong. You just cannot make this stuff up. You want to see a display of self righteousness on display as public righteousness? Check out Facebook on Sunday afternoons. Pastors across the country diving online to brag about how the Holy Spirit rocked their house that morning. Never an off day. Never an off sermon. Nah. If there is just treat it like a bad selfie. Delete and move on until you find one you are satisfied with.
Which brings us to the final sunny point contributing to this phenomenon - the church. The vast majority of churches today do not shun this trend of narcissism; they encourage it. Sure they may wrap it up in the name of Jesus but at the end of the day they can be as narcissistic as the Pharisee in this parable:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." - Luke 18: 9-14 (ESV)
Not only self-righteous but treating others with contempt. The seeker friendly, purpose driven model of Churchianity preaches a Gospel of Me. It is all about Me. The Bible becomes about Me. The stories are leveraged to speak things into my life and my circumstances. The truly sad part is many Christians believe this is what it was meant for. Beloved, the Bible is not about you or me. It is all about Jesus. Just look at modern Christian best sellers. Joseph Prince tells us we are Destined to Reign. Joel Osteen writes about Seven Steps to a Better You. The sermons we see every week are just as egregious. Four part series on how to improve your sex life. Three part series on learning how to be significant. Jesus wants you to be important. Jesus has some hidden grand purpose and scheme for your life. Rick Warren actually preached that the worst thing he could think of was someone who never discovered their purpose. Not someone who never came to the cross for salvation. I remember after Hurricane Sandy devastated portions of where I lived there was such an outpouring of help from the community. Believers and unbelievers. The difference? It was much easier to track the actions of the believers because it was a nonstop barrage of Facebook posts showing what great humanitarian work they were doing. Complete with pious pictures and spiritual videos.
Which brings us back full circle to our key verses and the continuing teaching from Christ from the Sermon on the Mount. There are several points here for us to consider today. The first deals with the heart. What is the motive for our actions? If we are driven by pure Christian love and compassion, as Christ compels us to do, then we will not seek out the adulation of man. We will not care if we are seen by others. There is this great Seinfeld episode where George is trying to put a dollar in a tip cup at a Pizzeria but the owner keeps looking away at the last moment. When he tries to take the dollar back so he can "re-tip" and be seen, he is caught and the owner thinks he is actually stealing from the tip cup! So he was not tipping because he was grateful but so he could be seen. How often does television mock real life for us? We wrap ourselves up in a spiritual prayer shawl so other Christians can see how prayerful we are. We dance and sing the loudest to be seen and heard the most. We shout out hallelujah and amen to be seen and heard. The modern Pentecostal experience often devolves into a "look at me" farce that has driven many solid theologians into Cessationism. People shouting the gibberish of modern tongues with either no interpretation or a repetitive interpretation at best. Everyone fancies themselves a prophet or apostle these days. People being "slain" in the Spirit, another practice found absolutely nowhere in the Bible. Churches routinely send a band of congregants to third world countries for "missions" trips where there righteousness can be posted 24-7. Can Jesus be any plainer here? Do not practice righteousness to be seen by other people! Do not! If you do beloved then it is already of no account to you. There is no reward for it. There is no spiritual credit for it. Why? Because you did not do it for Him! You did it for you!
The second point Jesus is making here is in relation to giving. Do not give to the needy as the hypocrites do; with blaring trumpets in the synagogues and in the streets so they may be praised by others. There is a lot to unpack here. The first thing is that the act of giving is an act of righteousness. The Bible speaks very clearly about giving cheerfully and no under compulsion. I am not speaking about tithing, which is part of the law that has passed away. I am not talking about churches who abuse their sheep when it comes to giving. Covenant agreements and stripping memberships based upon tithing records. How unbiblical and un-Christlike! Yet the act of giving itself is righteous. Whether it be in the synagogue or the streets. Whether it be in the local church or for the needs of others. If you find a church that truly preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ then you will not find a more righteous cause for your giving. If you find a church that does the opposite however, you should not give a dime to a work that is not of God. Then there is the reference to the streets as well. Giving to the needy is a just cause beloved. Do not let false teachers who are preaching for shameful gain tell you otherwise. The Book of Micah teaches us that one of the three things the Lord requires of us is to do justly. Another is to love mercy. As if God knew full well our predisposition to talk a righteous game but not back it up, He included this in Scripture:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. - James 2: 15-17 (ESV)
There are people starving in the pew next to us and we say amen, hallelujah and go home. If you read Acts 2 you will discover that the model for the church was one of a community of believers who shared everything. Today we have pastors who tell people to throw their money on the altar and sell miracle prayer cloths. I saw the other day on ITunes, healing prayers for 99 cents from a disgraced preacher. Look at the vivid example Jesus gives us! Do not be like the hypocrites who give in order to be praised. Truly He says to us that we will have already received our reward. Again, it is about where our heart is. If we give to receive the praise of man then we have decided that is our reward.
Jesus wraps up this short teaching by reminding us that God sees everything we do beloved. There are no secrets to He who formed the universe by His spoken command. We do not have to worry if the owner of the pizzeria looks the other way when we tip - God saw it. We do not have to worry that no one knows how much money we gave for this year's missions fund - God knows! Let us also remember that it is not just about money. What we give our time to counts. What we give our resources to counts. What we give our expertise to counts. What we give our heart to counts. None of it should be done to be seen by man. No righteous act should be done for the purpose of being seen by man. By doing so, we translate that righteousness into self righteousness and self righteousness is simply false righteousness. The work of Christ is sacrificial by nature. It is an act of giving. He taught servanthood. He washed the Disciples feet. It was always about the glory of the Father, not His own.