Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

Day 36: “Fasting and Acting!” 09.27.2018

Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV) “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

In the mid-nineteen eighties, the NFL Player’s Association called for a strike just as the season began. The team owners were in a real fix. The schedules were in place and many millions of dollars were on the line in television and advertising contracts. Neither the owners or the players would budge.

What did the teams do? They went out and hired replacement players from everywhere. Former NFL stars and no-stars, college guys who were fine athletes but never made it to the professional leagues. A few men from the Canadian Football league. Anyway, they fielded teams. We lived in New York at the time and we were Giant fans. I noticed something watching their very first game. They looked sharp. They were wearing the genuine Giant uniforms of red and blue with the classic helmets. The entire production was visibly pleasing but that was all it was. The players were simply not great. They looked the part, but they were basically acting. They meant well but it was not genuine.

That’s what the word “hypocrite” means and meant when Jesus used it. “Hupo-cren-omai” … we can hear the word “hypocrite” in their meaning someone playing a part or presenting themselves falsely. The replacement players were not guilty of any such thing; they were just trying to compete and fill in. but the illustration seems apt to me. Watching their appearance, they seemed to be the real thing. Watching their actions, one quickly could tell they were not. So …. God is watching our actions and has very little interest in our appearance.

This teaching then is not about fasting. The ancients often fasted, and many modern Christians do as well. It is about using fasting to impress others. It is very similar to the previous teaching from our Lord about praying for appearances:

Matthew 6:5 (NIV) “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

In our last article we were talking about the calling to put sin to death. That the true disciples are called to hate their sin. That hating of iniquity in self should be our highest priority and rooted in true love for God. Then we will be able to readily forgive others as we have been forgiven. But we have other priorities and one of the biggest and most spiritually unhealthy is to look spiritual.

Let’s go deeper. Why …. exactly why … do we want to be seen as special and noteworthy and impressive? Why do we exalt ourselves seeking to be admired and even adored? I have an idea. Perhaps just my idea. But self-love is a form of idolatry. Wait! I understand that we are to love ourselves in a healthy manner and strive to have self-respect. But deep self-love eclipses even love of God. And it accounts for all sin. Self-love insists on its own way and casts off God’s restraints. But the sinful religious lover of self wants others to see them as spiritual and God-centered. So, they can quickly become actors because they love self first and God second. How’d that happen?

Consider the Greek mythological fellow named Narcissus. The story is that he was so handsome that one day he sat and looked at his own reflection in the lake. Then he fell in love with himself. Of course, self-love is a reality and necessary in life. If by that we mean self-respect and appreciation for the wonder and privilege of life. My sense is that Adam was content in Paradise before the entrance of sin … content with who he was and how God had created him. Eve as well. But at some point, Satan prompted them to think they could have more in life than just contentment. They could become like God and, of course, then everyone would bow to them and admire them and stand in awe of them. So, the rest is tragic history.

I am not suggesting that taking the time to groom nicely or dress carefully are inherently wrong or sinful. Of course, we can do those things without obsessively considering how to appeal to others. Rather, Jesus is condemning the hypocrites who wanted to appear spiritual so they fasted and were happy to let others know they were suffering. Once again, their reward was not in fellowship with God but impressing other people.

In the end, Christianity is, in a very real sense, first and foremost a private affair between the true disciple and God. Then it works its way out in life so that others see it and God may be glorified. But in order to be genuine, it must be rooted in the secret interactions of the believer with God. We live that manifestly in different ways. I knew a man who only brought his tithes in cash and wanted no one to know what he was giving. (I learned that via an anonymous note.) I heard of a man who refused to receive his doctoral degree because he did not want to be introduced to Jesus as “Doctor.” Extreme? Perhaps. But Jesus is seeking a family of disciples who are not interested in impressing man. They are interested in impressing God.

Next: Treasures in Heaven. Blessings! Pastor Alberta

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

  1. Barbara and Jerry Amey

    I just wanted to tell you again how much we like your blogs. They really stimulate thought and self evaluation. Thank you so much.

  2. SueByrum

    I agree. What I like about the football players is that they had self confidence that they played for different personal reasons. It could be the love of the game, the opportunity to show the skills God gave them, or even as shallow as this sounds…a paycheck.

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