16 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
18 “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
In a short-lived television advertisement in the 1990’s, actor Chad Everett was shown performing surgery on a patient. When one of the nurses asked if he knew what he was doing, he looked up at the camera and said, “I’m not really a doctor; I just play one on TV.” Then he went on to talk about the benefits of the product he was selling. It was a wonderful postmodern kind of ad, with an actor acknowledging that he really was just acting. Since I saw that ad, I myself have used that line as I have worked at my “day job” in retail sales. I often feel like I am just acting a part, that the work I do at my shop is not really “me.” Of course, having been professionally trained in acting, I actually have the credentials to say, “I’m not really a salesman; I just play one here at work.” But have you ever felt like that? Ever felt like you are just playing a role, that the face you are putting on each day in public was not the one you truly wear in private?
In the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, our Lord speaks of giving, praying, and fasting in a way that is honest with God and unseen by men. To make His point, Jesus tells the crowd, “do not be like the hypocrites.” In each case, Jesus explains that hypocrites are people who put up a big public show about what they are doing. Hypocrites give alms very publicly so they may receive the accolades of men. Hypocrites pray in the streets with long-winded prayers, so that they may be seen to be pious and praying. Hypocrites make a performance out of fasting by putting on tragic faces and making sure everyone knows how they are depriving themselves. In short, hypocrites aren’t truly pious and Godly men and women, they just play that role in public.
The word υποκριτής (hupokrites) comes from ancient Greek drama. It literally signifies someone who “speaks or acts under”–i.e. an actor under a mask. To be sure that everyone knew who was whom during a play, the actors would wear masks. There was a mask for the hero, one for the heroine, another for the villain, and different ones for comedy than for tragedy. A “hypocrite” was literally someone who wore a different face while performing on the stage. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? We’re all guilty of it, acting one way in public and another way in private. As I mentioned earlier, I really just play a salesman at work, and the rest of the time, I really don’t think about selling things or marketing merchandise. But we all play roles in our personal relationships, too. We put on a strong face for our children even as we are falling apart inside. We make a big deal out of some minor injury so we can receive sympathy. We wallow in self-pity and make a show of it before others, so that they also pity us. We lie about things that we’ve done, or, like the hypocrites in Jesus’ examples, we make a very public performance out of doing something good. We hang out with our friends and pretend to be just like them, even as we are cringing at their behavior–and OURS.
And we have all known people like that in our churches, haven’t we? If you say you haven’t, then I’d say you’re either lying or else you haven’t been paying attention. The truth is that we have a lot of hypocrites in some churches, people who make a show out of very public alms-giving, passionate praying, and even tragic fasting–although there are precious few churches today that preach about fasting at all. And we all have seen or know someone who makes a show of coming to church, not because they desire to know and worship God but merely because they believe going to church is expected of them. They go through the motions and put on the mask of piety, but their hearts are elsewhere.
One of the things that turned me off to church for so long was just that kind of hypocrisy. When I was a teenager, I witnessed a VERY public performance of piety by a bunch of rich folks who essentially made a mockery of an Easter Sunday baptism service. They played out their churchgoing religiosity very publicly, sitting in the front pews in their fur coats and silk jackets, and they gossiped with each other throughout the worship and sermon. My hatred for their hypocrisy just added fuel to the fire for me to avoid faith and worship. But nearly thirty years later, I met a man who turned the tables on such acting, a pastor who showed me the opposite. This pastor was a man of great integrity, and he was the same gentle man in private as he was in the pulpit. He was always loving, always caring, always giving. He drew me to Jesus Christ through his passion for the gospel and his genuine love for his fellow men. And once I met Jesus–in His Spirit and in God’s Word–I began to see that a different way was possible.
In these verses of Matthew chapter 6, Jesus is telling us not to bring attention to our personal relationship with God–our giving, our praying, our fasting–but rather to do those things so that only God knows we are doing them. No one should know what we give to others. No one should know about our personal prayers. No one should ever suspect we are fasting. It’s not that we need to lie about those things, not be hypocrites and say we AREN’T doing them. Rather, we are to keep them private because they are a personal thing between us and our God. We give in secret because it’s really no one’s business what we give as our sacrifice to God. We pray in private because it really is a private conversation between us and God. We fast even as we go about our everyday lives, because the deprivation we are undergoing is truly just about bringing our bodies into submission and feasting on the Spirit of God.
None of that has the least thing to do with anyone else–except that we do these things to intercede not only for ourselves but also for others. We give so that others may receive. We pray the Lord’s Prayer as a corporate prayer for His intercession in our lives and the lives of our communities. We fast to bring God’s presence into places where we feel He is needed. It’s not that we, as a group, should not come together to give to others, to pray for others, to join together in fasting for others. But the point is not to make a public spectacle of it, not to make it into a performance before men. Our duties as people of faith are to be performed before an audience of One.
I may just play a salesman in my shop, but I also am always an ambassador for Christ. I can go through the motions of being a merchant and still maintain my devotion to God, still allow His Word to inform my everyday life. I don’t have to give up being a man of God just so I can sell things. Rather, if I am faithful to Him in my private giving, private prayer, and private fasting, He will reward me with His presence, allowing me to have Him near me always even as I work at my day job. His Spirit will be with me to guide me and keep me honest. His Word will be with me always to season my speech with love and respect. His Son Jesus Christ will be with me always to remind me of the precious gift of salvation that I actually MUST declare to the world. You see, while our personal relationship with God is to be kept private, our redemption through the gospel must be made public. We are told to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creatures. (Mark 16:15) That is the one aspect of our relationship with God that we are not meant to keep private. While we keep our giving, praying, and fasting private, we are to grab a megaphone and declare the gospel from the rooftops, well in view of all men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
15 “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
16 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
What I have learned from Jesus is that I can still act my role of a salesman and allow it to be a platform for sharing the gospel of Christ. I can be a strong father and still be a gentle man of God. I can be with friends and try to season their lives with the salt of my own life, perhaps seasoning them to change their lives. And I can even pray in public and let it simply be a passionate corporate plea for forgiveness, wisdom, and blessing. My public life need not be about my “close personal relationship with Jesus,” but rather about my choice to glorify God in all I say and do. It’s about letting the face that people see truly reflect the man I am inside: a man saved by grace through faith to declare to all men the good news of peace with God.
Today, let us reflect on the masks we wear to hide our real faces, the masks under which we speak and live. Let us put off those masks, laying them aside as we pursue the righteousness and kingdom of God. We don’t need masks of religion to show our faith to God. We just need real faith. Therefore, let us continue to give and pray and fast, but to do it in private, and allow the Holy Spirit of God to wholly infuse our lives. Let the person we are in public be a reflection of who we are in private, not a mask we wear to impress or deceive others. In the end, let us always remember to let the light of Christ shine through our lives at all times, so that even if they cannot see our face, they will always see His.
Precious Lord, I want my life to only reflect Your Son’s life, to let my words and actions be as You would have them be. Help me to take off the masks of religion and let my heart and deeds be one in faith and devotion. Guide me with Your Spirit and Your Word, Lord God, so that I can live out my faith in every aspect of my life. Amen.