[Bearing some relation to my last post
“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.
2 “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. 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.
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. 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....
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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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. (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
The narrow application of
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 is rather straightforward. Jesus gives very specific
information on how His followers are to engage in certain devotional practices
and His followers are to faithfully obey His teaching in these areas. But we must also explore how this passage applies more broadly in our current cultural context.
In some academic circles it has
become popular to speak against the “individualism” of Western culture. Joel B.
Green and Mark D. Baker, for example, decry, “The individualism and
self-centeredness so characteristic of our social environment.”
Some of the criticism against an over-individualistic reading of Scripture has
certainly been helpful; for example, in Pierced for Our Transgressions:
Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution
Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach demonstrate that the idea of
“corporate moral responsibility” is “pervasive in Scripture,” and that it is
foundational to a right understanding of the gospel, yet the idea of “corporate
moral responsibility” is neglected in “our individualistic age.”
Also, it should be noted that most every church could benefit from a careful
study of the many “one another” passages in the New Testament (John 13:34-35; 1
Cor 1:10; Gal 5:13; 1 Thess 4:18; Rom 15:14; etc.), or other passages that
speak of life together in the body of the church– passages that would certainly
confront selfish ‘hyper-individualism.’
But the campaign against
“individualism” can be carried too far. In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, Jesus speaks
of individuals before God. In the secret acts of devotion outlined in this
passage, followers of Jesus are specifically limited in the ways in which they
can interact with others. In fasting, the Christian may go into a public
setting, but he may not put his act of spiritual devotion on display– he must
keep his fasting hidden. In prayer, the Christian is to become utterly secluded
away from others. In giving charity, the Christian is to remain anonymous. Only
the Christian and the “Father, who sees in secret
” are to regularly know the
details of the Christian’s devotional practices.
The secret aspect of the
Christian’s devotional life, along with Jesus’ talk of reward before the
Father, serves as a reminder that “we must all appear before the judgment seat
of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body,
according to what he has done, whether good or bad
” (2 Cor 5:10 NASB). In
speaking out against the selfish ‘hyper-individualism’ in our culture,
Christians must remember that the culture will not be changed by any social
agenda or church program, but only as individuals
repent, come under the
teaching of Christ (trusting in Him for who He is and what He has done), and
begin to seek the reward of God rather than the praise of men.