Make certain you do not perform your religious duties in public so that people will see what you do. If you do these things publicly, you will not have any reward from your Father in heaven.
[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues. He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23)].
What are the religious duties Jesus is talking about? In the next few scriptures he elaborates on three major duties in Jewish life – charity, prayer, and fasting – things that Christians generally refer to as “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual disciplines are like a workout for your spirit. They build up your spirit in the same way that a good workout at the gym builds up your body.
Spiritual disciplines bring you closer to God, and closer to each other. Someone who is spiritually healthy is able to connect with God spirit to spirit. A spiritually healthy person is also able to connect with other people spirit to spirit. Spiritual disciplines build up your ability to make these connections.
Let’s get back to that gym analogy. If you go to the gym to get a date, you probably won’t get very fit physically. You won’t really be paying attention to your instructor. You will be paying attention to who’s looking at you. If you are a girl you probably won’t want to look like you are straining. You just want to look hot. But not in a sweaty way. And you won’t consider it a successful workout unless you get a date.
In the same way, if you perform your spiritual disciplines so that other people will like admire or respect you, then you probably won’t get very fit spiritually. You won’t really be paying attention to God or what the Holy Spirit is saying. You will be paying attention to who’s looking at you. Unlike the other example, you probably WILL want to look like you are straining. You want to look fancy and flamboyant. You want to get noticed. And you won’t consider it a successful spiritual exercise unless someone compliments you on your piety or zeal or talent.
Some of the Jewish religious duties are practiced in private, others with the family, and others in the synagogue. Charity would be one that would be practiced in public. Prayer isn’t generally something done in public, although it was apparently happening in Jesus’ time. Today some Jews pray in public at the Wailing Wall where the temple was located in Jesus’ time. Some pray there because it they feel God’s presence in a site that has such historic significance; others may do it as a form of public protest against the Muslim mosque that was erected on this site. Maybe in Jesus’ time some Jews were out on street corners shouting their prayers as a form of protest against the Roman occupation. Who knows? But usually Jews don’t pray in public, and Jesus advises against it in this scripture.
What kind of spiritual disciplines do today’s Christians practice? The ones that come to my mind are worship, the sacraments, tithes and offerings, missions, reading the Bible, and prayer. These are some of the common ones. Some Christians don’t think they need spiritual disciplines because God loves them anyway, but this is missing the point. We don’t do these disciplines to get God’s love or approval; we do these things to help us stay on track, keep our focus on God, and know his will for our lives each day.
I think all of us agree that we shouldn’t make a show of any of these things, but we’ve all seen it happen. There’s a lot of performance in today’s churches – music, prayer, and public speaking can all become a show. It’s a fine line. On the other hand, enthusiasm is sometimes confused with attention-seeking and disinterest is confused with humility. As with everything, we shouldn’t make judgments about others because only God knows what’s going on in the heart. We should focus on our own interior motives and maintain our own spiritual disciplines so we can connect with God and others. That’s the goal, after all.
Jesus warns his disciples not to make a show of their spiritual disciplines, and the advice is just as meaningful today. If you notice that you are distracted by what others think of you, or if you find yourself bragging about the things you do, then it’s probably time to step back and connect with God in the privacy of your home. Making a sideshow of your faith won’t do you any good and it will irritate those around you. Just like that skinny girl who hangs around the gym posing with her water bottle and her 3 pound weights.
What does this scripture say to you?