Last week we discussed man’s nature with regards to choosing wisdom and righteousness. We visited Ecclesiastes. There Solomon asks what advantage the wise man has over the fool, or the righteous man over the wicked. We also looked at passages which describe our righteousness as filthy rags, and which tell us nobody does good.
And we read where Jesus warns against being like the hypocrites. Consider again what he says.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Throughout his ministry in all the gospel accounts, Jesus repeatedly warns against acting like the hypocrites. In this chapter, he sharply contrasts several ways the hypocrites do their good works with how God wants us to do ours.
In short, the hypocrites prove that ostensibly good deeds like praying and giving to the poor can be tainted – and effectively invalidated – by selfish motives and a desire to merely cultivate a personal reputation for charity and piety. If that is our reason for doing such things, God is not impressed, nor is he going to reward us. We already got our reward.
Yet Jesus does not conclude that we should cease praying or giving to the poor entirely just to avoid doing what the hypocrites do. These can and should be fundamentally good impulses, and we should not abandon or malign them just because others make a mockery of them.
Jesus repeatedly follows up his warnings against hypocrisy with correction. He does not just tell us to not do these things. He tells us to do them, but in the right way and for the right reasons.
“Do Not Be Like The Hypocrites,” But…
Something struck me odd this week as I read the Scriptures. In the chapter before all his talk about not practicing righteousness before other people, Jesus teaches something that seems contradictory.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Wait. Is Jesus telling us here to do our good works where others can see them? The very next chapter starts off with him warning us about that very thing! So which is it? Should we practice our righteousness before other people or should we not?
The personal example of Jesus in his public ministry should give us a clue. Jesus goes around with 12 disciples for 3-years doing miraculous signs and wonders. He turns water into wine, feeds thousands with just a handful of fish and bread, heals the sick, makes the lame walk again, casts out demons, and raises the dead, just to name a few things. He does all these in full view of the public. Yet Jesus was never one of the hypocrites he warns us about.
So why did Jesus do these good things where everyone could see?
First, Jesus loved the Father and came not to do his own will, but to do the Father’s will. Second, we know “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus loved God, and he loved us.
The Greatest Commandment
Consider how Jesus responds to a test.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus is telling us something revolutionary to our understanding of God and the Bible. And we should note what he says elsewhere.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Consider the many implications. First, we should see the Old Testament in an entirely new light. If we did not understand it before, it should suddenly make far more sense.
In short, Jesus says love for God and our fellow man is why God gave the Law and sent the Prophets. Second, love for God and our fellow man compels us to obey what God says about how to conduct ourselves and treat people.
Third, our motivation for obeying the Law and commandments must be love. If our motive is self-promotion, or even self-preservation, Jesus says we have already received our reward. God is not impressed.
Indeed, while we know that “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom,” we also know “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” They seem contradictory, but both are true simultaneously.
Without Love, I Am (And Gain) Nothing
Nestled conspicuously amid a controversial discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul writes to Corinth the following:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
I could write also: if I teach an excellent Sunday School class, or write a really great blog post afterward, but have not love, I gain nothing.
This sounds an awful lot like something else Jesus says.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
There is a common thread. Conspicuous good works apart from love for God and our fellow man are worthless. Yet we are to do good works. We are to do the will of our Father who is in heaven. Only we must do those things from the right motivation. That motivation is genuine love.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…”