Jesus’s Teaching on the Outward Religious Acts to Earn Man’s Approval

Written by Linda Tu’ulakitau

Matthew 6:5-18 King James Version (KJV)

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:

15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

The purpose of the passage is about Jesus’s teaching on the outward religious acts to earn man’s approval and admiration, and the genuine inner relationship with God which based on one’s attitude of the heart. Jesus mentions two areas where people show their religious acts: prayer and fasting. Jesus states that the Father will only bless those who pray and fast from a genuine motive–out of their sincere love and reverence to God. Jesus teaches that when we do things to draw attention to ourselves so that people will praise and admire us, then that is the only reward we will ever receive. But when we do things from a sincere heart out of our true devotion to God, then God who sees what we do in secret will reward those who seek him with their true hearts. 

  It is clear from this passage that the structure is closely parallel to v.2-4 and uses the same keywords and phrases. A member stood at the front, leading the prayers conducted in the synagogue. The congregation regarded someone summoned to stand at the front leading prayers as an honour. They did not hold prayer meetings at the street corners, but a person could time his movements to bring him to the most public place at the proper time. The disciples conducted their prayers in the storeroom. The ‘storeroom’ was a secluded, windowless inner room with perhaps the only lockable door. It is proverbial for a secret place. In this passage, Jesus does not prohibit communal prayer, however, he is totally against the showy pretension that a person displayed for the intention of winning people’s admiration and approval. The essence of prayer is the communion of the disciple with his Father. 

There are key theological concepts identified in Matthew 6:5-18. First, God the Father is our Rewarder. He rewards those who diligently seek him. We pray to the Father, and the Father who sees all, even things hidden, will reward us accordingly. When we do things out of impure motives, the Father will grant us what we deserve. Second, Father God is our Provider. He provides for our needs, and he also provides our daily bread. Third, the Father is God Almighty. We must surrender to His will on earth as it is in heaven. Last, but not least, the Father only forgives those who forgive others. We cannot claim God’s forgiveness and mercy until we show his mercy and forgiveness to others. 

The original readers would find it easy to digest and receive Jesus’s teaching. The Jews were familiar with God as the Leader of Israel, as implied by the Hebrew Scriptures. As suggested by Hebrews 11:6 King James Version (KJV): “6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” When the Israelites were loyal to their covenant relationship with God, God lavished his favours upon them.  God rewarded them for seeking him with their sincere hearts. 

The word hypocrite originates from a Greek word which means “play-actor”. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hupocrites, which refers to Greek or Hebrew actors that play in theatres. So, the word hypocrite in this passage refers to people who act spiritual or pretend to have piety to win the approval and admiration of man. Matthew uses “hypocrites” thirteen times, Mark uses the word twice and Luke three times. Hypocrite refers in this passage to those who fake being pious. They have their reward. The honour they receive from people is all the reward they get. 

While it is useful to explain the historical and literal context of the passage so that the audience will understand its proper context, the application is important too. There are contemporary issues exclusive to the 21st century. In the workplace, for instance, workers strive hard to prove to their superiors that they deserve a promotion. Their motive is to gain the approval and admiration of their bosses to get a promotion. Today, more and more people are seeking to win the approval of man for their own personal gain rather than focusing on the approval of God. It is imperative that we communicate the message of this text in a way consistent with people’s situation. We cannot impact lives with our message if we do not present a message relevant to people, they can relate to and can apply to their circumstances.  God has called us to deal with contemporary issues, to minister to modern people, and to lead the church in the 21st century.

I believe Jesus’s teaching is still relevant today. Only the Word of God can deal with complex issues in our day. If we honour God from the truth of our hearts and our motives are pure in his sight, God will bless us abundantly as he promised in His Word. 

Image by Bob Bello from Pixabay 

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