Matthew 6:16 – 18 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.
I really shouldn’t have been there. In fact, it was the last place on earth I should have been…but I couldn’t help myself. I heard a bit of commotion, and saw people gathering and making their way outside of town….and then I realised what was happening and I followed them. At a distance, of course. I knew I couldn’t be seen. I stayed at the back, trying to make myself as unobtrusive as possible.
I could see him at the head of the crowd, starting up the mountainside. He was walking along with his friends, and suddenly he bent down and picked up a child who was running beside him, and put him up on his shoulder and carried him up the hill. And everyone was smiling and happy, and I wondered again whether we were wrong and he was right.
And then he turned to the crowd and started talking to them. I stood behind a tree, a way back from the edge of the crowd, terrified that someone would turn round and start pointing and shouting, ‘Look, there’s Nicodemus…..’. But nobody did. All eyes were on him. They were mesmerized, and rightly so. I was myself.
He told them about the blessings of God. He told them the importance of keeping God’s law. He spoke about anger, and adultery and divorce. He spoke about revenge and loving your neighbour. He knew how to hold an audience captive. He was a natural orator. He had a quality about him – the people, well they were drawn to him, somehow. And apart from that, they liked him. He was a likeable young man. I liked him myself.
And then….then he said something that made my blood run cold. You know how it is when the preacher seems to be looking directly at you, and talking directly to you, and you think he can see right into your very soul – all the things that you wouldn’t want him to see, but he can see them anyway? Well, that’s how it was with me that day. He said, ‘When you fast, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. Behave normally . God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well’.
He might as well have added ’You, Nicodemus. I’m talking to you’, because I knew he meant me. Us. The Pharisees. I was annoyed at first, and I walked away. Started back towards town. How dare he? Small-time celebrity? We were the religious elite, looked up to, courted, feared, flattered. Pharisees. Even the name meant ’separated’. But as I walked, something gnawed at me, got me thinking. Wondering. Asking myself. How fine was the line between ’separated’ and ’self-satisfied’? How many extravagant exhortations had I made under the guise of teaching the people how it should be done? And was I really keeping God’s commandment of loving my neighbour while I avoided touching anything unclean, people included? Worse still, though God saw what I did in public, what did he see when he looked into my secret place? It bothered me. Worried me. I kept turning it over in my mind, hoping for some thought that would assure me that he was wrong and I was right. But none came, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise…….well, that’s another story, but I don’t think I was ever the same after I heard him speak that day.
Of course, I’m talking about something that happened in my time. But I’m willing to bet that it’s still happening in your time. There will still be people, I’m sure, who like to sit in the front pew in your churches, and sing the loudest and praise the longest, and like to have everyone think they’re the elite, something to aspire to. But I can’t help wondering what God sees in them?
You see, what he was really saying that day was, if you think that’s all there is to it, that you are seen to be doing the right thing, you’re making a big mistake. What God wants is for you to do the right thing without being seen. And that’s a tough one for most of us, because there’s no glory in it. No human glory, that is. No human reward. But God will reward you, and there’s no earthly glory to compare with it.
Still, like I said, it’s a mistake a lot of people make. And they’re not all Pharisees either.
Dear Father, Please help me to be more concerned with what You think of me than what others think of me.