Beware of Mere Religiosity! Rather Strive to Practice True Religion!
O Lord God, our dear heavenly Father–You know and understand the thoughts of our hearts. You desire that we come before You with sincere repentance and with a hearty desire to receive Your absolution and instruction. Please assure us of Your forgiveness and instill within us an understanding of Your Word. Move us to live our lives in godly service to others, for in so doing we will also be serving You. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Our heavenly Father desires children who in love will follow Him wherever He wants them to go. He wants children who will serve Him by serving others. Ruth was willing to leave her family and country behind to go with Naomi to Bethlehem, where she would then serve Him by serving Naomi.
The members of the early church strove to live lives of love and service to each other. Many of them gave liberally of their substance to help others. Among them was a man named Barnabas, who was moved by the Spirit to sell certain property and give the proceeds to the congregation. Ananias and Sapphira thought they would do the same, but their desire to keep a portion of the proceeds while coveting the possibility of praise for giving all led them into a scheme which ended with their deaths.
Text: Matthew 6:1-6
Jesus says: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
In Christ Jesus, who would have us act and pray with sincerity, dear fellow redeemed:
A little over a week ago, my wife and I were privileged to spend a day sight-seeing in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful and historic city—one of my favorites. As we were walking along a street known as the “Battery” and gazing at the big southern mansions overlooking Charleston harbor and Fort Sumter, I noticed a sign—“Beware of Dog.” Now, had the message on the sign ended there, I would not have given it another thought, but this particular “Beware of Dog” sign listed a reason, for it went on to say, “He will bite you!” As I looked through the wrought iron fence into the manicured lawn and gardens beyond, I began to imagine what kind of monstrous dog must lie within. All of a sudden, however, I heard a few “yips” and there next to a massive porch pillar stood a small lap-dog—one of those ankle-biters! Any fear that the sign had generated quickly slipped away, and I almost laughed.
Signs which tell us to “beware” ought to cause us a bit of fear, for they are generally put up to keep us safe. When our Lord, then, tells us to beware of something, it is with good reason and should make us sit up and take notice. In this section of His “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus in essence tells us to beware of a condition we might call “mere religiosity.” “Mere religiosity” is that rather common condition of acting religious, but not truly being religious. “Mere religiosity” is outward—it is an act put on in front of others in order to secure a calculated benefit—“I go to church to make my wife happy.” “Mere religiosity” has little to do with true religion and the will of God, but rather has everything to do with hypocrisy and fulfilling the will and desires of men. “Mere religiosity” can be and often is spiritually fatal. Therefore, I would urge you today BEWARE OF MERE RELIGIOSITY! RATHER STRIVE TO PRACTICE TRUE RELIGION, for…
…mere religiosity seeks to glorify self, while true religion seeks to glorify the Father! Jesus says, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them…. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men…. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret.”
It is important as we begin our discussion today, that we realize that Jesus is not here establishing a series of laws about charitable giving, but rather is addressing the question of the motive involved with charitable giving. Jesus is not saying that all charitable giving must be anonymous—that you must perform some slight-of-hand as the collection plate goes by, so that no one notices what you put in. After all, how is it that your “left hand” will not “know what your right hand is doing”? In addition, if you consider the example of Barnabas from today’s Epistle Lesson, you find a gentlemen who openly gave the church in Jerusalem all of the money he received from selling his property in Crete. He did not do it anonymously or in secret, but rather his example served as a “light” just as Jesus had earlier commanded: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The key to understanding God’s will and Jesus’ intention is found in the motive. Our good works—our charitable gifts are to “glorify the Father in heaven.” This, then, is true religion. Mere religiosity views charitable giving as a means to glorify self—to obtain some benefit for self. Therefore Jesus warns us not to “sound a trumpet…as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.” Now, we have no record of the scribes or Pharisees literally having people blow trumpets before they gave their offerings, but we do know that these same individuals would frequently make a point of giving their considerable gifts in the presence of others in order to be seen by them.
In the temple complex in Jerusalem there were numerous trumpet-shaped receptacles into which people would place their offerings. At one point in His ministry we are told that Jesus and his disciples “looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury” (Luke 21:1). It was upon this occasion that they saw a poor widow put in her last two coins, and Jesus remarked, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all, for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had” (Luke 21:3). Notice how Jesus focuses on motive—she gave in view of her trust, and her trust served to glorify her Father in heaven. The others, while giving more, sought primarily the glory of men.
This was the downfall of Ananias and Sapphira—initially it would appear they were inspired by the example of Barnabas, but Satan was able to corrupt their thinking. They wanted to be seen by the other early Christians as being big givers to the church and their desire was to receive the glory given by men. This led them to “lie to God” and resulted in their deaths (Acts 5:4).
Remember, dear friends, everything we have belongs to God. Consequently, when we are moved in faith to give some of that which belongs to God to others, it is unbecoming of us to boast as if we were all that generous. It would be like men taking money out of your wallet to take a poor man out to lunch and failing to tell him that his lunch was on you. We have been given so much—and I am not even talking primarily of earthly goods, but think of our spiritual heritage and our inheritance in heaven. Ought we not be generous stewards of the grace of God—giving liberally of all that we have received in order to glorify our Father? This is the true religion after which we should seek—vain-glorious giving is mere religiosity—something we should avoid!
Yes, BEWARE OF MERE RELIGIOSITY! RATHER STRIVE TO PRACTICE TRUE RELIGION, formere religiosity seeks to be seen by men, while true religion seeks to fulfill the will of the Father! Jesus goes on to speak about prayer. He says, “When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place.”
When the Jews in Old Testament times turned away from the LORD God and served others gods, the LORD sent them into captivity in Babylon for seventy years. After they returned from that captivity, they were intent upon never succumbing to idolatry again. As part of their spiritual discipline they determined that they would pray at a minimum three times each day. In order to encourage regularity they went on to suggest three appropriate times at which to pray: 9:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and 3:00 p.m. As is often the case, such regulations, which are intended for the good purpose of furthering spiritual devotion, end up in reality being a hindrance as they become applied in an ever more wooden way. The same thing can happen today with our table prayers, when we say them with regularity but without sincerity. Prayer, which is intended to be a personal communication with God can end up and in Jesus’ day did end up being simply one more obligation to fulfill, and for many an opportunity to demonstrate spiritual superiority. Prayer mechanics among the Jews were very different from our own. While we bow our heads and fold our hands, and often pray silently, the Jews of Jesus’ day held their hands to the heavens and looked up to God, and prayed out loud. Observant Jews would drop everything at the stated times for prayer and begin to pray irrespective of where they were or what they were doing. We might think of the practice of the Moslems today, who by Islamic law are to pray at five specific times each day. In addition, there were certain Pharisees who made it a point to be in very conspicuous places at those assigned times, so that those passing by might see and hear them as they prayed. They wanted to be seen. They wanted people to say, “My, how religious that person is!” This is mere religiosity. Now, there is little danger than any of us would go down to the corner of Second and Main and begin to pray out loud at 12:00 noon, for people would not comment on how religious we were, but would rather question our sanity. Yet one cannot but wonder about many of the public prayers that are uttered in our land. They are often required to be so generic—no mention of a specific God and certainly no acknowledgement of Jesus as Savior, which is in reality and affront to God—that they become virtually meaningless…this is mere religiosity!
True religion—true prayer is the heart-felt communication of the individual believer with his or her Father in heaven. It is above all private—an overflowing of our personal confessions, thanksgivings, and petitions. Jesus is not saying we cannot pray corporately—as a group, for the Lord’s Prayer itself suggests that it is a group prayer. We are not instructed to pray, “My Father,” but “Our Father.” Again, we return to the motive. Do I pray to be seen by men—to be acknowledged as being spiritual, to gain some sort of moral advantage for myself or my cause, or do I truly intend to communicate with the most powerful Being in the universe and the most important Person in my life?
BEWARE OF MERE RELIGIOSITY! RATHER STRIVE TO PRACTICE TRUE RELIGION, for mere religiosity receives the rewards of men, while true religion receives the rewards of the Father! Jesus tells us repeatedly regarding those individual who practice mere religiosity “Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” People who do good things to be seen by men, do receive their reward—the respect and at times the adulation of men. Their names are publicized and men sing their praises. Outwardly many good things can and are done in this world because of their actions—libraries, hospitals, theatres, parks, schools among other things are built and maintained and often named after their benefactor or benefactress. But Jesus assures us that their rewards while real remain earthly rewards given by men and limited to this life. True religion strives for something totally different—the rewards of the Father. Jesus says once again repeatedly, “Your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”
Now there are three ideas we want to consider in connection with Jesus’ promise before closing our sermon today. First of all, His reference to God as our “Father,” secondly, Jesus’ reference to “rewards,” and, thirdly, what does Jesus mean by “openly.” The fact that we can address our almighty God as our “Father” speaks to our close relationship to Him. That relationship is only possible because of our dear Savior Jesus Christ. By nature we live in rebellion against God—we are His enemies, but in Christ we have been reconciled to our heavenly Father (cf. 2 Corinthians 5). Jesus and Jesus alone was able and did pay the price for our sins by shedding His own blood upon Calvary’s cross. Consequently, our heavenly Father has adopted us and made us His children by faith through baptism (cf. Galatians 3). Consequently we can indeed entrust ourselves to Him and depend upon Him. Therefore, we can gladly give of what He has given us, for He will care for our needs and does in fact provide for us far beyond our needs. We can go to Him in prayer with confidence, for He invites us to do so and promises to answer those prayers by filling our lives with good things. This is true religion.
Individuals, who practice mere religiosity, do not know God as “Father.” Oh, they might address Him as “Father,” but they do not trust in Him as their heavenly Father. That is why they seek their own glory and try to secure their own rewards here on this earth. They are walking by sight rather than by faith. They are not overly sure of this “pie in the sky” business, so they want to make sure they eat their cake here! But because such individuals do not trust God even for earthly blessings, but rather seek them themselves, so they also fail to see their need to trust God for eternal life. Consequently, there are a host of organizations than embrace mere religiosity as a means of securing not just the rewards of men, but also the rewards of heaven—the lodges proclaim openly that “character determines destiny” for anyone irrespective of his faith or lack of faith in Jesus. Lord Baden-Powell instructs the scouts of all religious professions that they can “do their duty to God” by “doing a good deed each day.” The lodges proudly profess that “character determines destiny.” But Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). There is only one God in heaven above, and we by the grace of God can joyously call Him “Father” in view of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, we must realize that those who practice true religion recognize that God’s rewards are rewards of grace, not of merit. Think of the words of Jesus to His believers in Matthew 25: “Come, you blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you have Me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in, was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me” (verses 34-36). Note, first of all, that the blessings of heaven that God will give to you and to me as His believing children have been prepared “from the foundation of the world—” long before anything we might have done could influence them. They are a gift—pure and simply! Then note that the believers’ response to Jesus was not, “Yes, that is right. We should be commended. We deserve everlasting life.” No, they responded by asking when they had ever done that? The good works of true religion are not done to merit anything, for everything given us is given by grace—that undeserved love of God tied directly to Jesus! Consequently, Jesus promises that we will be rewarded for giving a thirsty little one a glass of water (Matthew 10:42).
Finally, when Jesus says that the Father will reward us openly, He is referring to all of the blessing God showers upon us—both those we receive here in this world and they are manifest all about us; as well as all those we can only anticipate we will receive in the world to come. Look at the people around you. Think of the love they shower upon you. Consider the clothes you wear, the foot you eat, the place you lay your head. Consider your health, your wealth, your freedoms and opportunities. Consider then also those things you cannot see—the peace of mind and heart you have knowing that Jesus is with you always, knowing that your sins have been separated from you as far as the east is from the west, knowing that nothing can separate you from your Father’s love in Christ, and knowing that one day you will inherit heaven—a gift of God’s grace given for Jesus’ sake which will be evident on that day for all to see!
My dear friends—BEWARE OF MERE RELIGIOSITY! RATHER STRIVE TO PRACTICE TRUE RELIGION! Then all will be well for you now and throughout eternity! Praise the Lord! Amen.
—Pastor Paul D. Nolting