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.
And 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.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
—Matthew 6:1-6,16-18, NIV
I once read a book by Covert Bailey in which he related a number of amusing anecdotes about the inventiveness of lazy people in a gym. One man, who was instructed to take a 30-minute walk outdoors, found a short cut and spent the time he saved relaxing on a park bench. One woman found a way to disengage the chain on her stationary bike so that she could rack up the required mileage just by twirling the pedal with her toe. Confronted with the puzzle of tennis players who were out of shape, even though they played regularly, he sat down to watch and found that they were careful to hit the ball directly to each other so they wouldn’t have to run.
The author concluded that lazy people are marvels of efficiency. Unfortunately, their efficiency is self-defeating.
Today’s passage in Matthew speaks of the self-defeating efficiency of the spiritually lazy.
For example, some of us have found a shortcut in the Christian walk. We are like that man who thought the whole purpose of “going for a walk” was to be seen leaving the building and entering it thirty minutes later, but in reality the part of the walk that is not conspicuous is the whole point. The middle part is hard work; it makes your heart beat and your lungs ache, and when you get back your muscles are sore. No one praises you for your hard work as you walk, in fact, you sometimes get the impression that passers-by are amused by the spectacle of your walk, though in reality they aren’t even paying attention. When you realize that, you wonder why you are working so hard when no one can see it or praise it. So we make sure we are seen leaving church and entering it a week later, yet we do not walk the distance in between. We take public credit for the Christian walk, but we do not do it. We have not fed the hungry, visited the homeless, loved the unpopular, spread the gospel, or done any other such thing. We simply parked our religion on some park bench where it gets flabby and frail from lack of exercise. That way we avoid getting our pulse up or breathing hard; our muscles never ache, and we never have to cope with unrequited labor.
Some of us have found a way to disengage the chain on the stationary bike to rack up mileage without effort. For example, we give no more (and probably less) than the people who sit next to us in church, but we arrange to give our gift in a conspicuous way, so that the pastor will receive our check in a special ceremony and we will receive the praise and acclaim of all. It’s a great way to get the most mileage out of a gift. Or we volunteer our efforts only for conspicuous leadership positions, where we can garner all the praise but delegate all the work. Oh yes, the mileage is very high on our spiritual odometer, but we grow weak and flabby.
Some of us have found a way to discuss religion the way that lazy people are alleged to play tennis: we always hit the ball directly to the other player, so no one has to run after it. There is the appearance of a dialog, but no information is exchanged. No one is challenged, no one gets exercise. Our religious conversation is full of platitudes and devoid of anything of substance. We say “Seasons Greetings” at Christmas (even though we could just as well be wishing someone a Merry Winter) and speak of bunnies instead of the resurrection at Easter.
Look at today’s passage, and note how marvelously efficient religious phonies are. They certainly get a lot of mileage out of very superficial religiosity. They do only the conspicuous part that people notice, to get credit from other people instead of benefit for their soul. Just as a trainer or a doctor, Jesus has harsh words and a grim prognosis for lazy people who cheat this way.
Let’s not be like them. Let’s walk the middle part of the Christian walk between Sundays. Let’s not remove the chain from our bikes, so that our odometer reading is accurate. Let’s get some exercise from our religious discourses, and discuss spiritually meaty things.