This sermon is part of the sermon series "If Jesus Came to Your Town ...". See series.
There are five parts of me and (probably) you: Part of myself that I know and like and let my friends see; part of myself that I know and dislike and try to keep hidden; part of myself that I do not know but my friends do (especially my mother, my best friend); part of myself that neither I nor my friends know but only God knows—he made me in his image and knows who I might become. And there is a fifth part of myself that only God and I know: a hidden part with God.
Today Jesus is concerned with this hidden part—what I call the Fifth Dimension. For him, this is vital to who we are. Of course, culture finds that hard to believe. Image seems everything. Play to your strengths and project your best image—"Hey, how do I look?"
With Jesus, it's different. You will have noticed two sections in the scripture. Both have a similar structure and use the same kind of language—first, about the way I do "acts of righteousness;" secondly, about the way I pray. Jesus' teaching follows a pattern here. He makes certain assumptions, gives serious warning, and then gives practical advice.
The fifth dimension of acts of righteousness
Righteousness is especially God's word because it describes him in his goodness, rightness, justice, purity, and glory. Only he is righteous, but when Jesus died for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, he empowered us to belong to him and become more like him—more righteous.
Jesus assumes you are doing righteous things. He says: "When you do…When you give." When. And it is happening.
Someone on this campus on Saturday deliberately befriended another student who was sitting by themselves, and tried to introduce them to their friends. That's an act of righteousness. Someone on Sunday not only gave during the offering, but was touched by a need and gave extra. That's an act of righteousness. Someone has an Aunt Ethel who is negative and doesn't really like you, but you telephoned her and spent time with her. That's an act of righteousness. On Monday, someone had the courage to say something unpopular to a close friend that needed to be said. That's an act of righteousness.
Jesus does not keep on hammering us about being good to our neighbors, being generous, being courageous and kind—he assumes that his followers will do acts of righteousness. He also assumes we know about the rewards of acts of righteousness. Not in some crude mechanism like pyramid selling—Jesus doesn't mean that God will give us back even more in kind. Jesus means that, when we operate with God's principles, when we give of ourselves and make space in our lives, God comes into that space. "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously" (2 Corinthians 9:6) is a fundamental principle.
I remember being asked by a funeral director to do a lady's funeral. The widower wanted a pastor, but didn't belong to a church. This lady had died in her 60s. And only her husband was there; their only son had lost contact. No neighbors came, no one from work. They had lived utterly for themselves.
Spend your money, your time, your energy on yourselves, and your lives will lose out on the miracle of God's reward—his giving to us. Jesus is upfront about the way God rewards righteous living in his own way. Lose your life to Jesus and you will find it in his abundant love.
But when Jesus warns you, you had better notice. What is the thing he sees as the danger? Beware hypocrisy—Don't do your acts of righteousness before people, publicly, to be seen. Beware hypocrisy. Hypocrites are people who appear to be doing one thing, but who underneath have other motives. The word "hypocrite" came from the theater, when actors pretended to be other characters. That's okay in acting, but it is forbidden in the Christian life. Publicly, religious people know they ought to give, ought to care, but they also want people to see them, admire them, rate them. They want to do good, but only to get the bonus of other peoples' congratulations.
Some situations almost call out for big public giving. It's possible the mention of trumpets refers to public fasts, when trumpets might bring people out on to the streets. Public worship and service may be in front of people, but if you are doing it because you're in front of people, you're in big trouble. Wearing a mask places us in grave spiritual danger; we're pretending about our relationship with God. Our eyes are not on God, but on peoples' responses and that means one thing: no reward. Verse 2: "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."
People may honor you, but God doesn't. Other people may think you are worthy, spiritual, and generous. They see the evidence. God says: I know the rest of you—the parts you've hidden, your complex motives, and you are not worthy.
After the warning comes advice—Jesus never leaves us without sound, practical help. "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." This is the fifth dimension, the part of me only God and I know.
How could one hand do something the other hand doesn't know about? What a vivid way to describe disconnecting the giving/helping bit of you from the dangers of hypocrisy and manipulation. If you give something good, do it secretly. Then no one else will know except God. He is the audience that matters, and God, in secret, will reward you. It is between you and him.
Jesus believes in an unseen Father. Do you? There are not enough of us who have secrets with God. How many acts of righteousness have been just for our Lord, for an audience of one? There has always been a terrifying danger of public Christianity that has no secrets with God. There should be things that only you and God know about in deep places.
The fifth dimension of prayer
Prayer is the other issue. You might expect Jesus to mention this next. Again, Jesus assumes that we are doing it. And I already know from conversations with students about their praying with others and in groups. Nowhere in Matthew 5-7 does Jesus exhort disciples to pray. You must pray. You must have your quiet time with God. He assumes it's part of belonging to him.
Also, he assumes you know about the rewards. Of course, these are not slot-machine rewards—put prayer in at the top, and God's answer comes out at the bottom. But prayer roots us in a relationship with God that works. It's hidden and it's real. We learn that God answers "yes," "no," and "wait" in his own way and time.
Now the warning: Beware hypocrisy. Verse 5: Don't pray publicly to be seen by people. Don't be hypocritical in your prayer.
Hypocrites stand in front of others and enjoy the impression they are making. Jesus utterly opposes those who do so because they love the status and position and religious fuzzies. For "they have received their reward in full." That's all that happens. You think you are getting through to God, but all you are doing is play-acting, pretending before people. They may be impressed. God isn't.
Instead, practice secretly. You have a room. Does it have a door? Then close it and pray, and your Father, who is unseen and who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Jesus says nothing about the theology of prayer or about its metaphysics. But he does say: Do it secretly.
And because Jesus is at the right hand of God, interceding for us right now, there is no such a thing as an empty room where I have to go and start it all up. Hebrews 7:25 and Romans 8:34 reveal that we have an interceding Lord at the right hand of God who is always praying for us. We join in—we are never on our own.
This is the most vital space. This is just between God and me. No one but an audience of one, or rather three in one. It is this space that needs the best of our discipline and our creativity. You must bring the best of who you are. Oswald Chambers said, "My worth to God in public is what I am in private."
When Jesus says in verse 7, "Do not keep on babbling," he speaks about a relationship utterly unlike any others. We have one God and we can call him Father. And it's so straightforward compared with babbling and ignorance. Even more extraordinarily, in verse 8: "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." If God knows what I need, why should I bother anyway? Isn't this exactly what the skeptic claims about the absurdity of prayer?
But prayer isn't about extracting things from God. That's emergency-use prayer. Fire-extinguisher prayer. Prayer is about being in relationship with God. I tell him what I know he knows in order that I may get to know my life and my situation as He does. Remember the fifth part—only God and I know that which holds everything else together. For me, I keep a journal to make sure this relationship is real. It's my blog with God that only he reads. Everything goes in it: confession, petition, and intercession. Because I know my worth to God in public is only what I am in private. Do you think that's true?
Michael Quicke is professor of preaching at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of 360-Degree Preaching (Baker).