I have often come across Christians who justify their absenteeism from Church and religious disciplines with a classic excuse. Their justification is that they don’t want to associate with ‘certain hypocrites’ that they see in Church whom they abhor. This is most certainly an excuse for not exercising one’s Christian disciplines and if I may add, a silly one.
To such ‘excuse wielding, absentee Christians’ whose non participation they ‘justify’ by what they consider hypocritical behaviour, Jesus gives a perfect reply. His solution is not to absent oneself from Christian duties but to do exactly the opposite of what they see in others and disapprove.
The Jews at the time of Jesus were ‘self-righteous’ not righteous and it is their self-righteous actions that Jesus does not want us to imitate. Jesus exposes the behaviour of the Jewish leaders not merely for our information, but for our transformation. These disciplines of transformation are seen in three works which have now become expressions of Christian discipline, especially during the season of Lent.
Interestingly, the three disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are not limited to the Lenten season, but are given as a daily expression of our faith. Jesus does not give these to us as an option; but as a way of life for a Christian. The words are not ‘if’ you fast, or pray or give alms but WHEN you fast, WHEN you pray, WHEN you give alms. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are daily and necessary works of piety for every Christian.
Having mandated what we ought to do, Jesus purifies the intention and behaviour of these disciplines. In doing this, Jesus brought about a reformation in the works of piety which was corrupted by the Scribes and Pharisees. To highlight an example, the Jews did not have a season of fasting but a few communal days and private fasts on Mondays and Thursdays . These they publically maintained, disfiguring themselves with ash, so as to draw attention to their actions.
Jesus’ response was not to reject in entirety the practice of the hypocritical Jewish leaders, as some Christians do; but to purify these actions. The Christian works of piety are an inward journey and not an outward show. The disciplines of piety are between God and us. In reminding us that neither hand should know what the other is giving, Jesus reminds us that even the indulgent thoughts triggered by the pride of giving should not be entertained in our mind.
What remains then is question of my ‘reward’. Jesus is most certainly promising us a reward if our works of piety are not attention seeking. But He also clearly teaches that there is a reward for us in heaven, if we have not by our self-indulgent actions received it already here by drawing attention to our selves. If we love those who love us then the ‘reward’ is an increase in their love for us. But if we love those who hate us then the ‘reward’ is an increase in God’s love for us.
Written on behalf of the Holy Spirit
References from the Jerome Biblical Commentary
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