Playing to the Crowd
Prayer, Fasting, Giving, Sermon on the Mount
“Image is everything” or so we are told by our society. Consequently, we have an over-weight society desperately concerned about losing weight. People undergo all sorts of procedures to make themselves look younger because they know that appearance is a factor in getting hired for a job, and how you are viewed by others. Political candidates spend as much time (or more) managing their image as they do refining their platform. Crafting the right sound bite is essential to getting elected.
In our daily lives we give much thought to what others think about us. I am ashamed to confess that sometimes I am more careful to drive the speed limit (or closer to the speed limit) because I know that if I get a ticket it will be published in the paper and then I will never hear the end of it!
We put things away in our homes when visitors come because we want to manage what people think about us. Or, we might do things, say things, or display things (like a cross or Bible) in order to create a certain impression. The motivation is all the same: to manage what people think. We want to please the crowd. Jesus warns us that we cannot follow Jesus by playing to the crowd.
“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. (Matthew 6:1)
The principle is simple: if we play to the crowd, there is no blessing from the Lord. The blessing only comes from those who we are trying to impress. The Lord wants sincere devotion, sincere worship and a genuine heart for the hurting rather than “photo ops” that benefit us. Listen to what He said to Israel in the book of Isaiah,
11 “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to worship me,
who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
13 Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
I want no more of your pious meetings.
14 I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
15 When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
16 Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways.
17 Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.
Jesus illustrates and applies this principle to three different disciplines: giving, praying, and fasting.
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.
Jesus says we are to give quietly. When we give to others we are to do so in order to help the other person (or organization) rather than help ourselves. Jesus pointed out that many (most) people give in order to get something. They may give to
- Get recognition. They may get their name on a plaque or a on a building. They may give in a way that everyone knows what they gave so they will be thought of as generous and possibly a spiritual giant.
- Get power. Some people give to gain influence. That is what the whole lobbyist phenomena is. A lobbyist will give powerful people perks in the hope that this will bring favorable returns when it comes to fashioning laws and policies. Some people even do this in the church. They believe if they give more they can have greater influence on what happens.
- Get Stuff. Many organizations offer “premiums” to people who donate to them. Through our work at radio fund raisers we have noticed that the phones are always the busiest when a popular set of tapes or books are offered as a “Thank you”. When nothing is offered, the phones are often very quiet. If you give to PBS or organizations like it they will offer various gifts. The hope is that you will be drawn to the better gifts and therefore give more money. In this sense you are actually giving to get stuff.
- Feel Good. Sometimes we give simply to feel good. Some tithe because it makes them feel like they are good Christians. They sometimes brag, “I tithe” as a way of showing how godly they are. I believe we are supposed to tithe but we do it as a way of showing our trust in the Lord to provide for our needs. We tithe to show God that we put Him first in our lives and in our wallets.
Here’s what Jesus says, “If you give to get something then what you get is your reward for giving. In other words, you should not expect Jesus to be impressed or to feel honored when you give selfishly. You gave to get something, you obtained it, and that’s it.
The better way to give is to honor the Lord with what you have. This means we give because we want to show love, alleviate a need, or support a ministry. We give not drawing attention to our giving. We give simply because we want to honor the Lord.
There will be times when you may be honored for your generosity. That is not the issue. The issue is this: did you give in order to be honored? If so, then it is a gift that will not be taken into account by the Lord. Giving large amounts is not the issue, giving with a large heart is the issue.
This is the point Jesus made with the woman who donates just a couple of small coins while others were putting large amounts in the brass trumpet like receptacles (so it made lots of noise announcing how generous they were). The woman was commended because she did not give to be seen (she had little to give), she gave to honor the Lord and gave everything she had. That is the model God gives for you and me.
Jesus now makes the same point with the issue of prayer.
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.
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus says godly prayer is all about to whom you are talking. The hypocrites prayed long-winded, fancy worded prayers. They did this because they want to impress those who were listening. The story is told that
Years ago a minister from New England described an ornate and elaborate prayer offered in a fashionable Boston church as “the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” This was perceptive, for he meant that the prayer was much more concerned with impressing the preacher himself and his listeners than with approaching God.
The principle is the same. If you want people to reward you, talk to them. However, if you want the Lord to honor you, talk to Him.
Jesus condemns two specific kinds of prayers. The first is ostentatious public prayers. This is not to condemn public prayer, it is condemning prayer that is aimed toward the public. And this is a trap we can all fall into.
Have you ever been at a gathering and someone is asked to pray and the prayer just goes on and on? You get the feeling that the person is demonstrating how spiritual they are. I am sometimes caught in this same trap.
I remember an Easter breakfast at my church as I was growing up. (This was the big event of the year). I was asked to say grace before the meal. When it was time to pray I tried to wax eloquent. Afterwards someone said with a smile, “Nice prayer, too bad you forgot to mention the food!” Ooops.
The second thing that is condemned is meaningless repetition. Sometimes we ask God to “bless this” and “bless that” but no one knows what that means. Sometimes we use the phrase “Father” or “Lord” or “Jesus” as some people might use “you know” in a conversation! That does not honor the Lord, it actually dishonors His name by using it as filler. We all have our “catch phrases” that we say when we don’t know what to say. I think Jesus is saying, “when you don’t know what to say, just be still and listen!”
I remember a story that made an impression on me. A young man who had been an unbeliever and lived somewhat wild came to faith in Christ. He was on fire for the Lord so he came to the prayer meeting the church was having. He sat quietly as several people got up and prayed long and flowing prayers. They were impressive and filled with wonderful theological terms. When there was a lull this young man stood up. He said, “Ummm Lord, this is Jim. I don’t know if you remember me. I became your follower just a few days ago. Well, I just wanted to say “thank you for forgiving me.”
All the formalism of that meeting melted. Tears filled people’s eyes at the wonderful honest simplicity of the prayer. Those who had gathered that night were humbled, warmed, and were taught a beautiful lesson about the true nature of prayer.
I hear people all the time say they don’t want to pray in public. Or better yet, they say they “can’t” pray in public. I’m afraid that what they are saying is, “I don’t think I will sound holy enough in my praying. I don’t know all the proper lingo.” I usually tell them the same thing: God simply says, “Talk to me. Just you and me”. That’s what real prayer is: a conversation from the heart. That is true whether you are praying publicly or privately.
God Honoring Fasting
Fasting is when you abstain from something (most often it is food) for a spiritual end. In the Old Testament people often fasted as a way of showing sorrow for their sin. When they would hear about a coming judgment they would fast in sackcloth and ashes as a way of showing God their sorrow.
Jesus fasted when He was facing temptation. He wanted all His faculties directed to listening to and trusting the Lord. The disciples fasted to gain God’s clear direction for their lives. Paul fasted after He was made blind on the road to Damascus seeking to discover what God wanted from him. The apostles fasted before they appointed elders in the various churches, they fasted before they sent out Paul and Barnabus as missionaries.
Fasting is a way of bringing our whole being before the Lord. It is designed to make us more attentive. When hunger pains hit we remind ourselves that the Lord is the true bread of Heaven.
Most of the time when we hear about fasting today it has to do with weight loss or medical procedures. We go without food to shed some quick pounds or we have to not eat before surgery or a blood test. These examples of fasting are not what the Bible means when it talks about fasting.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline. And it should be private. Listen to what Jesus says,
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.
Jesus says fasting is something that is supposed to be going on between you and the Lord. If you want everyone to know that you are fasting then you are gaining nothing before God in the fast. We should fast without announcing it. Our focus should be on listening to the Lord.
What we have seen this morning is this: God wants our relationship with Him to be a relationship with Him!
Let’s say you are married. Your spouse says to you, “Let’s go out on a date!” You think it sounds wonderful. However, when you go out you meet up with some friends. Let’s say your spouse spends all his/her time talking to their friends and basically ignoring you. Do you feel like you really went on a date? How about if they spend all night telling everyone what a great husband they are?
In both cases you feel the “date” was really about impressing other people. You didn’t have to be present at all!
That’s the way God feels sometimes when we worship. It is about the show. It is about how we appear to those around us. It is about looking prim and proper and holy. Jesus is just giving us three examples of this principle. It can apply in many areas,
- When we attend church so others will think better of us
- When we read our Bible at home so our families see us and are impressed
- When we use Christianize around our friends to sound spiritual
- When we speak in a Bible Study or class to show how much we know rather than to learn or share with others.
- When we sing in church so others will hear us; or when we don’t sing in church so others don’t hear us.
- When we give because we think it will bring us more money
All of these things are playing to the crowd. God is tired of it and so is the world around us. Our citizens are getting tired of politicians who talk much and say little. We are looking for someone who will speak to us plainly. We are looking for leaders who are genuine, humble, and honest. And frankly, I think that is what God is looking for as well.
What God wants is for us to come with hearts filled with anticipation to meet with Him. He wants us to sing songs to Him, not to each other. He wants us to give out of love for Him not out of obligation to the church. He wants us to pray in a way that connects our hearts with His. God is looking for genuine devotion, not pretend devotion.
And when God gets that kind of response from us; when we give our attention to Him and not to the crowd He draws us close and helps us to know the richness of His presence and the power of His love. And deep down, I know that is what I want more than anything this world can give me.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 160.