In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught a high and holy Law where absolute love is the supreme goal. Then He taught that His disciples what it would look like to honor it perfectly. The vision of Kingdom love that the Lord presented on the mountain is so achingly pure and obviously holy that humanity naturally praises it and longs for it. After all, the human heart was not created for a cursed world. It was designed for Heaven, and when it hears about home, it longs for it.
But often, we humans can take that exalted, pure vision and distort it, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day. It is a constant danger for every human. We see Jesus’ goodness, but instead of seeking to please Him, we decide it is impossible, we pretend the words are not quite for us, or we use His ideas to get praise for ourselves. We appreciate His beauty, and then we harness it for ourselves and lavish ourselves with praise and honor.
This turn in the heart from purity to selfishness often happens in the silent places of the heart and mind. It can happen quickly, like a flash of lightening, and it can take us by surprise…if we even notice it all. We started out wanting to be a light shining on a hill for the Lord. But then people notice, and they begin to give us praise. It feels so wonderful. We feel so loved…important, needed. We are given more roles with more influence. Instead of seeking the love of God, the love and admiration of our fellow human beings starts to become the most important thing. We begin to feed on their praise, and we do whatever we can to get more of it. We are no longer hungering to please our Lord and Savior. We are using His ways to feed our hunger for glory and honor. It is something that is hard to see or admit in ourselves, but it is always crouching at the door for the disciples of Christ. In fact, the more we walk in righteousness and the more people notice it, the more dangerous it becomes. Jesus was careful to warn against it:
“‘Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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.’”
It isn’t that the Lord doesn’t want to give us rewards at all…He just wants to give them to us Himself. He gives what is exquisite, pristine, and lasting. When we grasp and grope in our own flesh to impress others with our service, we take what is fine and reduce it to the tin can version.
Jesus knew that this deception works so quickly and deeply in the heart of each person that our guard has to be up right through the center of our own hearts. Our left side needs to keep our own right side from even knowing about the good it does. The minute one side of us starts to congratulate the other side about how generous and good and holy we are, we have lost. There is no room on the path of righteousness for self satisfaction and self congratulations. Every good deed must go straight to the throne room of God as a sacred offering. We need to work hard to make sure the pleasure of each good deed comes from the delight of pleasing our Lord.
In His sermon, Jesus goes on to show how this is true in every way we try to honor God. Whether it is giving to the poor or prayer or fasting, everything must be done out of love and devotion to God himself. That is the relationship He longs for from us. Think about that! Isn’t it amazing?
This is what Jesus said:
“‘…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. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.’”
Wow. Think about that for a second. Do you really believe that God the Father is listening to your silent prayers? Do you believe He is paying such close, constant attention to you? There are some things we understand with our minds, but it takes our hearts time to really believe. Do you really understand that the Lord tenderly listens to you when you come to him in the quiet of your room? Isn’t it amazing that the God who sits on the throne wants to hear from you? That glorious wonder is so magnificent it is hard for our minds to understand. Sometime it is even harder for our hearts to feel His drawing, powerful love. But He is always there, and oh, how He loves us!
So why is He so picky about how we pray? It was clearly very important to Jesus that when the members showed their devotion to Him, they were sincere. Wouldn’t it be terrible if someone you loved did something for you, but you found out later they really did it to impress other people?
Imagine a young wife who loves her husband with all her heart. He comes home from work one day with a present. It is a lavish golden necklace. How treasured she would feel! But what if she found out that true reason her husband bought the gift was because their neighbor had given his wife a necklace, too. What if the only reason the wife’s necklace was so lavish was because it had to be more extravagant and expensive than the one the neighbor gave. The gift would no longer be a symbol of her husband’s deep devotion. It would become a symbol of his pride and competition against his neighbor. In reality, he was using his wife and the gift for his own purposes.
On the other hand, what if the husband had come to her and given a gift to her in secret? What if he spoke words of love that only she would hear? His beloved wife would know that she was his true treasure.
The loving relationship of prayer to God is worth far more than any gold necklace. Imagine how it seems to God when we take the rich gift of prayer and use it to impress and compete against our fellow humans. It takes the highest thing and uses it for the lowest purpose.
God longs for His people to show genuine devotion. He wants to draw His children to Himself and become their greatest treasure. So as Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, He taught His followers the things they could do to show that their acts of love for God were sincere. When we give to those in need, it has to be done in secret. It is for the eyes of God. In fact, it was to be so secret that we need to hide it from the sides of ourselves that will turn it into fodder for our pride. Our prayers and our service belong to God alone.
Here is a beautiful song with compelling images of the love of the Lord: