The best pretenders!

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we don’t pretend or ‘show-off’ our faith for our own glory, but instead seek to do our acts of righteousness for your glory, for the sake of the treasure given to us through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We humans are so mixed up and so often get things the wrong way round!

Take for example, our fixation on awards.

One of the most popular and most watched award programs in the world would have to be the Oscars. You know, the Academy Awards for the best film, best actor, and so on. Just try to imagine how much money is spent to hold the event, how much is spent on the spectacular looking clothes all the artists wear, and how much is spent publicizing the event on TV and in magazines. The amount of money would have to be significant to say the least! The size of the audience watching the Oscars, either live, or delayed, or viewing summaries shown in news broadcasts, would be huge.

But, get this…the biggest award show on the earth gives away awards to…the best pretenders!

Have you ever realized this? The awards for best actors in most of these award shows go to those who are best at pretending to be someone else! Just think how many people become famous, or make incredible fortunes by pretending or making out they’re someone else.

Of course, not all people are paid to pretend, but they do seek something for their efforts. We have all, at some stage, put on a show for others in order to get what we want. For instance, have you ever seen children put on those ‘crocodile tears’ in order to get something, and then, once they got what they wanted, they quickly reverted back to ‘normal’? Or, have you seen children ‘show-off’ to get attention?

We adults are much more subtle of course. We’ve learned the art of pretending or ‘showing-off’ over the years and some of us are very good at manipulating people in order to get what we want, be that attention, praise, sympathy, or recognition.

We may even ‘pretend’ with our faith. Our ‘pretending’ or ‘showing-off’ gets even easier in church, because Jesus even tells us how we should act. For instance, in tonight’s reading, Jesus tells us to give to the poor, to pray, and to fast. We can pretend to do that. We can even try to impress each other by showing how generous we are with our giving, how many meetings of church committees we attend, how many times we pray, or what food and drink we are fasting from or how good we are at church cleaning duties and so on.

We might even show-off our faith or spirituality by showing people how long our prayers can be, how committed we are to the Lord by urging others to match our efforts, or how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ and his church. We even compare ourselves to others, criticising them when we don’t think they’re as good a Christian as we are, criticising them when they’re not good enough at ‘pretending’. For this reason Martin Luther insisted our righteousness is more dangerous than our sin because our ‘righteousness’ serves the most self-centred of all human desires – the desire for self-glorification.

You may not think you’re pretending. You may think you’re doing these things because of your genuine faith in Jesus. Yet, as Holden Caulfield, a character in the book ‘Catcher in the Rye’, written by J D Salinger, said: “If you do something good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good anymore.”

Also, unfortunately, sooner or later we stop pretending and people see us live differently at church compared to our public life during the week. They wonder which one is the “real” us and which is our fake life of pretending or showing off? They even call us names for our pretending, for the way we live a lie, or for the way we show off our faith by making people think we’re better than others. They call us hypocrites.

Jesus tells us how to act but he also tells us to do all these things in secret. How can we gain attention, praise, sympathy or recognition, when we have to do all these things in secret? How are we supposed to win awards if no one sees us? How are we to get the attention we’re craving if no one knows what we’re doing? How are we supposed to show-off or gain glory for ourselves if there’s no one about?

God’s not into pretending or lies: he sees right through our clever charades, our acting and pretending, and he sees the frightened sinful people behind the masks we put on to hide our true selves. He’s the one who sees everything we do, even when we do it in secret.

We don’t need to show off, or do a great song and dance act, or put on crocodile tears, or make huge shows of sacrificing time, talents, or money in order to be noticed by God. God sees us and knows us more intimately and more truthfully than we know ourselves. We don’t have to compete for his attention, because we already have it. Jesus wants to liberate us from the burden and never-ending task of trying to impress anyone- whether it be impressing ourselves, impressing others, or impressing God.

When we silly humans do things in order to impress God, he doesn’t see them. It’s as if our ‘showing off’ blinds him. But, when we do things in private, where no-one else can even see what we’re doing, God sees clearly.

If all our pretending and showing off is for a reward here on earth, then that’s all we’re going to get, and the rewards will remain on earth. The bank account of human admiration we build up for ourselves on earth can’t be transferred to heaven.

But instead, in this season of Lent, our Lord encourages each one of us to take up private acts of faith. For our secret or private faith practices of being charitable, praying and fasting, seen only by God, will be rewarded in heaven. The reward isn’t salvation or righteousness, because these have already been given to us as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. The reward referred to is recognition for our faithful service in heaven.

An example of this might be God boasting to the heavenly council of Job’s faithfulness, proudly pointing to him and how trustworthy he is. In this sense, the reward is a bit like a parent who is proud of their child and boasts to their friends and relatives. Even though we simply act how God expects us, the reward could simply be God saying to us: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

We don’t have to impress God. We already have his attention. Nothing we do could make him love us more or less, yet he does reward his faithful servants in heaven. The reward isn’t silver or gold or an Oscar, but it might simply be God’s approval and pride in you, his precious child.

We don’t need to show off our faith in order to be noticed and awarded by others, but we do need to practice our faith – in private. God sees what you do and his lasting reward is waiting for you.

The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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