Chapter 5: False Religion and Real Faith

False Religion and Real Faith

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If the high standard of character Jesus espouses in Matthew 5 is to become a practical possibility for us, he must first of all clear away misunderstandings we might have about a number of things. The first of these is the purpose of religion and the true nature of what are regarded as religious virtues.

Showing Off: Matthew 6:1

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

It seems that Jesus wants us to know God as more real than what appears to our eyes. He approaches the issues of giving, prayer and fasting with a common objective: we are to act in the sight of our Father, without regard for who else may be looking. No, more than that: we are to be sure that our reward comes from God and not from any onlooker.

Jesus ministered at a time and in a culture which held in high esteem those who gave to the poor, and those who were known for their religious faithfulness as men of prayer, particularly if they enhanced their prayers’ effectiveness through fasting. Such persons were thought to be especially close to God; but Jesus makes no bones about calling them hypocrites. They have received their reward in full, he says, implying that the motivation for all their actions lay not in the presence of God in their lives but in how their reputation as godly people would be enhanced.

Matthew 6:2-4

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

There is such a thing as a ministry of money, though this kind of unselfconscious giving is not limited to financial contributions. Self-promotion is not a necessary aspect of such a ministry, either. I have been amazed on several occasions, when attending the funeral of one of God’s humble workers whom I thought I knew well, to learn for the first time of the range of that individual’s activities – investments of time, energy and money in individual lives, useful projects, and productive work. Typically, few persons know about more than a handful of these projects and investments, and as a result you don’t usually see the word “philanthropist” in the obituary.

Matthew 6:5-8

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Once again there is no question here of whether or not we are to pray to God. The question is rather who our audience is.

Maybe some of his hearers were mystified at what kind of praying would be left, after eliminating public prayers, rote prayers, and high-sounding phrases intended to get God’s attention. Jesus responds with a model which reveals a great deal about the priorities he wants us to have in this world.

The Lord’s Model for Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

The first word of prayer establishes your membership in a community. That community is an inclusive one, embracing all to whom Jesus’ words are addressed, and probably meant to include the evil and the good as in Matt. 5:45. It is our Father, who sends the sun and rain upon all alike, who is addressed in prayer. Furthermore, this Father of ours is in heaven; he is not just a local God, or a national God; from the vantage point in heaven he is the Lord of all the earth.

Hallowed be your name

Here we acknowledge that the name of God is holy, not to be used lightly or abusively (taken in vain), or appropriated to private ends.

Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The coming of God’s kingdom and the doing of God’s will are not two separate events; they both refer to the same reality for which we are to pray. The answer to this portion of the prayer begins with the petitioner, because the doing of God’s will can begin with the actions of the individual. We are to obey the command of Christ not merely so we ourselves will be found to be doing God’s will, but because we want God’s will to be done in the world, “on earth as it is in heaven” and it has to start somewhere. All of our prayers of intercession, prayers for healing, prayers for justice, prayers for peace, are included in this prayer for the coming of the Kingdom and the doing of God’s will. Jesus wants us to pray in such a way because he wants us to understand that God’s will can be done on earth through the obedience of faithful people.

Matthew 6:11

Give us today our daily bread.

Our own survival is close to our hearts, and God is not ignorant of our needs. This portion of the prayer acknowledges God as supplier of those needs, both in terms of physical sustenance and also in terms of that spiritual nourishment which bread represents in scripture. The manna that was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness is for us a parable in sacred history of God’s supply of our spiritual needs, one day at a time.

Matthew 6:12

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

This is the only portion of the prayer that Jesus comments on directly (Matt. 6:14-15):

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

When attending church as a little child I always wondered how many people must condemn themselves regularly by repeating this prayer without thinking about it. I still wonder that. Much popular theology takes pains to explain away this particular aspect of Jesus’ teaching, as though repeating a “sinner’s prayer” at some point in life will remove the effect of what Jesus said. In fact, the person who prays the sinner’s prayer from the heart will also forgive those who have offended him, for two reasons. He will recognize his own sins as no less offensive than those of his neighbor; and the presence of Christ coming into his life will give him a forgiving spirit.

Make no mistake: there is no greater obstacle to faith or growth, no greater temptation faced by believer and unbeliever alike, than a bitter, unforgiving heart. The writer of Hebrews admonishes his readers: “See that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Paul recognizes that to continue in an attitude of unforgiveness, even toward someone who has committed a gross sin and shamed the community, is to be drawn in by a device of Satan (read 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 as a follow-up to 1 Cor. 5:1-5). But those who forgive have been delivered from the evil one.

Forgiveness of sin is the genius of Christianity. It is what separates the religion of Christ from all the religions of the world. Rather than teach steps of discipline, secret doctrines, or devotional exercises as ways to gain access to God, Christianity proclaims forgiveness of sin, free for all who will receive it. To knows that one’s sins are forgiven is to be free to love and trust oneself, based on the love and trust God has already given. Likewise, forgiveness of sin is the heart of practical Christianity; it is at the center of the practical application of the love of God. The person who forgives a sin neither makes excuses for it nor allows it to control her own actions. How could you love an enemy, whom you did not first forgive? It is the most Godly and Godlike act we can perform. There is no greater evidence of God’s presence and power in our lives than when we forgive a wrong.

Jesus got in worse trouble for forgiving sinners than he did for anything else. Retribution is built into our thinking at such a basic level that free forgiveness seems like it must promote anarchy at least, and perhaps is even sinful in itself. But for Jesus it is so essential that he requires – yes, requires – us to do it. He turns on its head the question asked by the Pharisees, “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” and makes forgiveness of sins the first order of business for God’s new community. The person who practices forgiveness in his personal life, his business life, or her public and professional life, is building on the rock laid down by Christ himself. And by the same token, the person whose life is built on anger, vengefulness, remembering of wrongs, getting even, or judging the behavior of others will be found to be without spiritual foundation, unable to withstand the stress of life’s uncertainties.

Matthew 6:13

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Temptation has a richer meaning than simple enticement to sin. It also means trouble, trial or testing in a more general sense. Thus it is only natural for us to pray that our lives would be free from undue or unnecessary trouble or stress.


Matthew 6:16-18

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

When you fast.

Fasting was and is an intentional act of self-denial, generally understood as the practice of going without food for a specified period of time, usually for the purpose of devoting full energy to prayer. This passage echoes very closely the admonitions about keeping prayer a simple and secret matter before God.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the practice of fasting was widely recognized as a valuable spiritual discipline. Jesus never repudiated this1, and spoke in expectation that the practice would continue; but elsewhere he did broaden the understanding of self-denial to include more than devotional exercise: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25). Yet even this extreme self-denial, which goes far beyond temporary deprivation of food, is not to be seen as undue hardship for those who follow Jesus. Put oil on your head and wash your face means to go about your business normally and cheerfully, so that if you suffer any deprivation voluntarily in service to God, it will be God who sees and rewards you.

Jesus is not the first biblical figure to put a different emphasis on the nature and meaning of fasting than the one which prevailed in popular religion. Isaiah speaks rather harshly to those who practiced fasting as a religious discipline, thinking that this would win them favor with God (Isaiah 58:1-7):

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you sees the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah, like Jesus, has little use for fasting or self-denial which is done to impress. Isaiah says that God is not impressed, and Jesus makes it clear that if the idea is to impress people around us, that is the extent of the benefit that will come from our fasting. But in Isaiah we also see that God will honor self-denial which has as its purpose justice, reconciliation, and freedom. And like Jesus, who says that your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you, Isaiah promises abundant rewards from God (Isaiah 58:8-12):

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Though the ancient Israelites thought their fasts were hardships which ought to have earned them an audience with God, Isaiah called them to still more thorough-going acts of self-denial on behalf of the oppressed and the hungry. Yet he also held out God’s assurance that such hardships could hardly compare with the blessings in store for those who thus freely conform themselves to the character of God. Along similar lines, Paul testifies concerning the hardships he endured (2 Corinthians 4:16-17):

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Proceed to Chapter Six…

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  1. He did, however, attract criticism for not encouraging the practice in his disciples while they were with him, and apparently for not practicing it himself: see Matthew 9:14ff and 11:19. []