"16 And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your hear and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by you Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
This is the third section on the practice of our piety in the Sermon on the Mount. This whole piece begins, back in verses 1 and 2 of this chapter, with Jesus saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” This appears to be a very important point for Jesus, because he then proceeds to illustrate this truth with three examples: giving alms, praying, and fasting. These three examples contain a lot of repetition. In all three Jesus urges His listeners not to be like “the hypocrites” who practice these things in such a way that they are seen by others. Instead, He urges His readers to give, pray, or fast in such a way that they are seen by their Father. Each time He calls God “Father,” and tells His listeners that their Father is One “who is in secret” and that He is “One who rewards.”
Why the repetition? Couldn’t He have made His point more quickly and efficiently by lumping these three examples together? What do we gain by having Jesus repeat Himself almost verbatim three times?
Jesus repeats for emphasis. Repitition was the main device teachers used to emphasize important truths. Jesus wants us drive home His point to His listeners and to us.
And what is His point? It is two-fold. First of all, Jesus wants to reveal the utter uselessness of trying to receive our affirmation, our identity, from others. Secondly, and more fundamentally, He wants to reveal to and remind His listeners of the character of their heavenly Father so that they will draw near to Him and receive His reward.
Jesus describes all of these actions: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting as practicing our piety. This means that these are actions or behaviors come out of, essentially have to do with, our relationship with God. We give to those in need because we see and respond to God’s gracious giving to us. Our giving comes out of our receiving from Him. Praying is more obviously connected to our relationship with God. Praying is how we communicate with Him. Fasting was primarily a way to express sorrow over sin. Everyone was expected to fast on the Day of Atonement. Fasting was meant to give expression to grief over the ways that the people had not trusted God, had not lived as if He was their God and they were His people. Over time there came to be only a few other days set aside for fasting by everyone. Fasting became associated with special times also involving prayer as a way to focus more completely on God.
Somehow though, over time, all of these actions came to be done by many in such a way that they were recognized or noticed by others. These people, whom Jesus called “hypocrites” found ways to make sure that when they were giving, praying, or fasting, the people around them would be aware of them. They announced their giving, prayed loudly in public, or fasted in such a way that it was obvious to others
Jesus warns that this approach to our piety has a huge price tag. Those who practice their piety in such a way so as to get noticed by others, get exactly that. The reward for their efforts is the notice of others, which may turn out not to be worth that much. As we have noted in the previous passages, other people are really not able to tell us who we are. They may affirm us, and for a moment help us to feel valuable, important. But they themselves are also often looking to be affirmed and loved by us. They cannot see us clearly--we cannot even see ourselves clearly most of the time!
But the inconsistent, half-hearted attention of others is all you get. And in the attempt to gain the notice of others, you lose the notice of God. And, as I have pointed out in our discussion of the previous two examples, Jesus is not telling His listeners that wanting to be noticed, the longing to belong, is an evil thing. We are created with a longing to belong, to be affirmed, loved, cherished by another. But that longing has a proper direction and object. God put that longing there to draw us to Himself, and He is the only One who can satisfy that longing.
Jesus reveals the wonderful character of our God to His listeners here, repeated for the third time. God is our Father--not just some disinterested Creator, or first and foremost our Master. He is our Father, we are His children--not just His creation. Our Father is present with us at all times, even in those moments where we are alone--and He is paying attention to us. He is the One who “sees in secret.” Our Father, in other words, is already here, already with us, and already watching for us to turn to Him. His attention to us, unlike what these “hypocrites” seek from others, is not a response to our initiative. He is there, as our Father, before we even consider Him. The One who created us then, far from being a disinterested and distant God, far from holding back from His creation until we prove ourselves worthy, is present and interested in our actual lives. This is truly good news. We are, born with a longing, as C. S. Lewis describes it “to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality...” He goes on to say, “Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”(“The Weight of Glory”)
This deep longing is put in our hearts by God Himself, and far from forcing us to search hopelessly on our own to discover how to meet this desire, Jesus tells us that Our Father comes to us, to fill us with His presence. Thus the last point Jesus repeats here for His listeners about the character of the Father is that He is a rewarder of those who come to Him. So Jesus motivates His listeners in the practice of their piety by emphasizing the ready and waiting heart of the Father to hear and see them, and to reward them, to answer that longing in them to belong, to “come home.”
Why is it that God will not reward those who are seeking to be noticed by others? Is it because He is just angry that we are seeking their attention instead of His?
I think, from this and the previous passages, that the fundamental reason we are not rewarded is that we are not putting ourselves in a place to receive anything from God. When we are praying or fasting or being charitable in such a way as to gain attention from others, then that is where our focus is--on others. Our hands, our hearts, are open to receive whatever affirmation may come from them. In a very real way, we are praying, giving, or fasting, with our focus on those around us instead of our heavenly Father.
In mulling over this passage, and this whole section, I have tried to consider how this applies to us. Most likely most of us are not announcing our gifts at church with trumpets, or standing and praying out loud in public places, or fasting in such a way as to make it obvious to others. I think what happens to us is that we get caught up in the “doing” of our faith. In church we are so often encouraged to serve in a variety of ways--to be on committees, teach Sunday School, reach out to our neighbors, etc. All of these tasks can be good things to be involved with, but sometimes what happens is that performing these tasks comes to be the essence of our Christian lives. These things are tangible, measurable, and we can receive some attention and sometimes maybe even affirmation for doing them. But after a while there is no real sense of a living God, a heavenly Father in our lives. We go on doing and doing, and sometimes we may feel our whole identity and life begin to depend on our performance of these tasks. We may come to a place where we feel burned-out and discouraged.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this we have stopped coming to our Father who is in secret, to receive His presence, His delight in us, His rest and direction. Maybe we started thinking that making time to be with Him was perfunctory, or just not as important as tangibly serving Him. Maybe we even tried to tell ourselves that God is more pleased with how we serve Him than in our receiving His loving word and presence to us. But this passage teaches us that knowing things about God and working for God are no substitute for feeding on Him every day. After all, this is not a God who is reluctant to meet us, to see us and to reward us. How wonderful He is! We can enjoy knowing ourselves as His beloved children, receiving again and again His love. I am so thankful for this reminder. We are given so much in the presence of our heavenly Father and yet often turn to live on so much less. May this reminder of the character of the Father draw us to Him again and again.
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