Monday, February 14, 2005

giving up the need to please people

In Matthew 6, Jesus is talking about the basics of the spiritual life: goodness, faithfulness, generosity, prayer. There is no doubt in his mind that his disciples will continue to do what observant Jews have always done; it is assumed that we know what a believer’s life looks like. The issue, Jesus says, is motivation. Why do we do the things we do? Are we seeking the favor of men and women, or the blessing of God? Are we listening for the praise of people, or the applause of heaven?

A few years ago there was a court trial, on our televisions each day, in which a public figure was charged with murder. It captured our attention. Along the way it was discovered, through media research, that the attorneys were actually playing to the cameras, and not speaking to the judge, or the jury.

The word hypocrite, in verse three, was a literal greek word meaning a “stage actor”. We know from the archeological work in the Galilee, and from the language of the gospels, that Jesus was familiar with dramas. A large amphitheater, at Zippori, was constructed during his lifetime, only a few miles from his home, and it featured a number of plays. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he spoke of hypocrites.

In our religious lives, Jesus was asking, are we playing to the grandstand? Three times he mentions something good---a just and righteous life, generosity, prayer. But he also warns us---don’t be good in order to be seen, don’t give so that you will be praised, don’t pray in order to be seen by others.

Why is motive so important? Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. Those who play to the grandstand, who hear the ovations of the crowds, they have their reward. Instead, do these things in secret. In anonymous, hidden ways, live your life in a way that plays not to the grandstand but to the One who is the merciful Judge, to the One who sees in secret. He will reward you. This is the applause of heaven.

This Lent, we are invited to give up our need to please other people. All of us are pretty good at that. We are invited to press the mute button that plays the ovations and cheers of other people. Instead, we are invited to listen for the applause of heaven.

Practice your piety in secret. Give generously, even sacrificially, for the sole purpose of pleasing God. Go into your room, and shut the door, and pray to the only One who is your Judge, knowing that his judgments are merciful.

We are not stage actors in a drama. We disciples of Jesus. This Lent, we listen to his teaching, we take up his cross, we die to the need to please other people. The praise of others is less significant than the applause of heaven. Sooner than we know, this truth will become more and more clear to us.


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