No-one likes a hypocrite – someone who says one thing and does another. A hypocrite is basically an actor – consciously or unconsciously. In fact, the original Greek word translated by our English word hypocrite, means actor.

In Matthew 6:1 Jesus warns: “Beware of practising 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.”

Earlier in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven…” Now he is saying, “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,..”

In both places he is talking about being seen by others, yet he seems to contradict himself. Is he inconsistent?

Counterfeit religion. In chapter 5 Jesus is speaking about the moral qualities of our life in public. Now in Matthew 6 he warns against using our faith to win applause. There is a sharp difference between living as God desires and wanting to make a name for ourselves. The first glorifies God; the second only brings the momentary applause of the crowd.

The attention-seeking ‘religious’ get what they delight in – accolades and celebrity. But Jesus warns, they will miss out on the true reward that comes from the living, all-righteous God. All they have is a counterfeit religion – empty and without lasting value. John Stott commented, ‘Our good works must be public so that our light shines; our religious devotions must be secret, lest we boast about them.’

Counterfeit Giving. Look at v.2: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.”

Trumpets may be a metaphor – we shouldn’t sound our own trumpet when we give to the needy.  But trumpets may also have a literal meaning. In Jesus’ day, when there was a pressing need for charitable funds, the Temple trumpets sometimes called people to make a special contribution. Anyone watching would see who responded.

Jesus says that when we give so that others know what we are doing, whether in the street or in the synagogue, whether in church or at a charity function – we are being hypocritical.

That said, giving to the ministry of God’s Word and providing assistance for those in need is biblical. Writing on Godly and responsible giving in 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul the Apostle says: For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might be rich.

Hypocritical religion is not from the heart. It’s motivated by self-interest. Jesus is saying here that hypocrites give in order to be honored by those around them. And, he says, “I tell you they have their reward.

They get what they’re after – celebrity status. But that’s all they’ll get. There is no genuine faith and no reward from God. It is counterfeit religion. This is one of the reasons that for decades naming rights of living people were not allowed in churches.

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

To ensure that we’re not proud or smug about our generosity, Jesus uses the telling metaphor that the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. No one, apart from God, will know about this private giving. He will see our real motives – our genuine concern to support gospel ministry and to care for the needy.

To be rewarded by God is the best kind of blessing. Approval by others is transient; approval from God is eternal. Aware of the deceitfulness of our hearts, we need to pray for God’s grace to avoid counterfeit giving.

Counterfeit prayer is another form of counterfeit religion that Jesus highlights.

In verse 5 we read: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward…”

Prayers in the synagogues were typically led by a synagogue member – not just the formal leaders. To be invited to lead the prayers was a mark of distinction, especially as the leader prayed at the front of the congregation.

Jesus knows how easy it is for the person leading prayer in church to focus more on the literary quality of their prayer and tone of voice, than upon God.

Now Jesus is not saying that prayer must always be in secret. He and his disciples attended services in the Temple and synagogue. On the night of his arrest Jesus urged Peter, James and John to pray for him – as a group. The first Christians regularly met together for prayer. Prayer in public was not so much the issue as the attitude of the pray-er.

In fact, the main point Jesus makes is the need for private prayer, for who we are in the privacy of our room is who we really are. Private prayer will be more honest and genuine. We are less likely to be motivated by selfish reasons. This is the kind of prayer that God hears. This is the way we can begin to counter counterfeit prayer.

How important it is on this Ash Wednesday and the start of the season of Lent, that we heed Jesus’ warning about counterfeit religion, counterfeit giving, and counterfeit prayer.

© John G. Mason

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, so that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.