Hypocrisy or a holy Lent?


Scripture, Matthew 6: 1-18 Nigel Bunce

Jesus used the Lord’s Prayer to warn his disciples against hypocrisy.  The practices of penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be done privately, not as public performances.  


Hyposcrisy and the Ash Wednesday liturgy

I opened this morning’s service with these words from the Ash Wednesday liturgy. “Therefore, I invite you to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”

Exactly these issues confront us in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was criticizing people whom other folks saw praying, fasting, and giving to charity. Because, these folks were doing these things just for other people to notice. Not for God, not to better themselves.  That’s hypocrisy.  

Jesus called them hypocrites. The words hypocrite and hypocrisy come from ancient Greek theatre. When an actor wears a mask to play a character in the drama. The mask hides who they really are. Likewise, we say it’s hypocrisy when someone pretends to be something they are not. Of course, better!

The Lord’s Prayer

Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount includes the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had an active prayer life. He often withdrew to pray alone. However, this is our only text that claims to record the words of one of Jesus’ prayers.

Traditionally, Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer at every service and as part of our personal prayers. However, we rarely remember the context. Jesus was correcting the disciples about praying falsely, like hypocrites. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer isn’t an all-purpose model prayer.

No petitions for gratitude

Therefore, that sometimes makes the Lord’s Prayer unsatisfying for me. Because, it has no petition for gratitude. That’s because my prayers always start – and often end – with thanking God for the blessings of this life.

Even in the hospital, I always begin by giving thanks to God. For example, thanks that the patient is in good hands in the hospital.. Or, with a grieving family, thanks for the life of the person who has just died.

The context of the Lord’s Prayer is avoiding hypocrisy

But Jesus offered this prayer in a specific context. Not behaving like hypocrites. Showing off. Piety when they pray or give to charity or decide to fast. Asking only for enough food, instead of a chest freezer full!

Concerning forgiveness, Jesus reminded the disciples to behave towards others the way they hoped God would treat them. Therefore, our reading is about how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. As opposed to how not to.

Letting your light shine before others

But this seems to contradict other words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” That context was different. Our good deeds should glorify God. Not ourselves.

Taken together, the two passages say, don’t be falsely modest. But equally, don’t make a huge fuss about good deeds, like charitable works, prayer, or fasting. You don’t have to tell the world that you gave a pregnant lady your seat on the bus. Let it simply be an example to other people.

Luke’s Gospel recounts a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector [Luke 18: 9-14]. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like various kinds of rogues. However, he didn’t need to tell God that he paid his tithe and gave to charity. He was just boasting.

In contrast, the tax collector was a model of humility. He stood in the corner. Didn’t even lift his eyes from the ground. Jesus commended him. Although, I don’t think we should be excessively penitent in our prayers. There’s no need to grovel. Any more than we should boast.

A holy lent

However, let me return to where I started. What might it look like, “to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.” I think I’ve already covered self-examination, penitence, and prayer.

I’ll just add that we shouldn’t make our prayers into a laundry list of requests. God isn’t a vending machine where you put in your debit card, and out comes your favourite snack or candy bar. And I doubt that God cares whether I’d like a new car or a bigger TV.

What about fasting? These days, few of us fast by giving up meat entirely for Lent. Some people decide to give up something that they really enjoy, such as chocolate or wine.

Spiritual discipline is not a public performance

But it rather spoils the effect if we tell everyone we meet what we’re doing and why.  Jesus was clear. People who do so already have their reward. Fasting – or any other Lenten practice – is only a spiritual discipline if it’s done privately. That’s different from a public performance.

One can say the same thing about almsgiving and reading or meditating on Scripture. On almsgiving, I’m not giving a stewardship address. Indeed, I’ve been truly impressed by how generously the parish has continued to support St. George’s during the pandemic.

As for studying Scripture, I will continue to provide Wednesday evening prayers and reflections for you to use if you wish. Also, during Holy Week, I will offer Evening Prayer each day. We will follow Jesus. First, from Galilee to Jerusalem. Then, during his last days before his death. 

Final thoughts

Finally, I don’t think, on any of these issues, that we have to follow Jesus’ directions exactly. “Go into your room in secret, and your heavenly Father will see in secret what you are doing.” Just don’t make a huge production of your incredible piety!

So my prayer is that each of you will have a blessed and holy Lenten season. Amen.