Nobody likes to think that they might have areas of hypocrisy in their life. That is an indictment we give to insincere Christians or money making charlatans. However, hypocrisy isn’t just unethical actions. Often, hypocrisy is mixed motives intertwined with good practices.
In Matthew 6:1-6, Jesus warns against two ways that hypocrisy manifests itself among religious people. The word “religious” often gets the automatic pushback, I’m not religious, I’m just a Jesus follower. This kind of unwillingness to assess our own actions, practices, and motives, is a big open door through which hypocrisy enters. If you’re still reading this, I invite you to set aside any self-justifying, catch-phrases that pop into your head and consider that this could apply to you.
Unlike many illustrations in the gospels, giving financially and praying in public are two things religious people still do. Financial gifts and prayer were good then and they’re still good now. They are also both areas in our Christian life that can be a source of personal pride.
Keep Your Giving Secret
Tithes and offerings are a Christian practice of giving financially to the church. Tithing comes from the Jewish laws to support the temple priests. Now, this cherry-picked law is taught as Christian duty. Paul tells us that financial gifts should be given from a desire to give. This topic is a whole different article, so for the sake of this article, I will assume your giving is free and joyful.
This first warning talks about people who let others know what they’re giving. This isn’t something I’ve witnessed. It seems like this would appear crass, but I have seen a kind of ownership after giving. This might play out in a church business meeting with an attitude of, we’re not getting rid of [item]—my tithes paid for that! That’s not bragging as much as it’s using gifts for leverage. It’s different but seems just as unhealthy.
The instruction to not announce your gifts reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. In that text, Paul talks about practicing our faith with love. If we have motivations other than love, our good actions are worthless. Paul’s letter echoes what Jesus tells this audience in Matthew. If you’re giving gifts with the motivation of receiving approval, that approval is the only reward you will receive. The act of giving has lost any benefit for your spiritual growth.
The second area Jesus addresses is praying to be heard by others. This is something that I believe happens all the time in American Christianity. Walk into a chain restaurant on any Sunday around 1 pm and you will probably see what I mean. Right after the food arrives, around the time the waitstaff is approaching to see if they need anything else, the table will close their eyes and “say grace” loud enough for all the nearby tables to hear. Sometimes the group holds hands. The waitstaff may seem unsure whether they should leave and come back or wait until the group is done praying. Often, saying grace out loud before a meal is expected by Christians. It may also be thought of as a “gospel witness” for anyone in the room who isn’t “saying grace.”
If you do this and you’re still reading, try to consider all the reasons you participate in this public show of prayer. Consider that saying grace is different than an actual opening prayer at the beginning of a worship service or public event. Saying grace in this way is making a personal prayer public. I personally find it awkward and sometimes manipulative. Even so, I believe it’s done out of a sense of duty or even routine, but what would it look like to not say grace out loud in public?
Is There Any Hypocrisy In Me?
This might cause people to jump to the other end of the spectrum. You might think I’m suggesting people stop praying altogether. I’m not suggesting that. I’m asking what it would look like to follow the heart of Matthew 6:5-6 when you say grace in public. Obviously, you wouldn’t go find a closet to pray in, but you could thank God for your food silently, in your thoughts, and in such a way that doesn’t draw attention to yourself. This might cause other Christians to assume you’re not praying at all. It’s in this moment of tension that you will learn a lot about your own motives. Are you thanking God for the food, or are you praying for others to see? Are you meeting other people’s expectations of what Christians are supposed to do?
Try this experiment just to see what happens and what goes through your mind. If you find hypocrisy within yourself, this is the time to deal with it.
Misunderstood and Judged
If you do this, you might be judged. Your explanation might be ignored. Remember, I’m not saying to “not say grace”. I’m saying to not let other Christians “see you say grace” as a faith building, and character building, experience. If you are misunderstood or judged, remember that Jesus was misunderstood and judged. Many people who don’t fit the American Christian status quo, for one reason or another, are misunderstood and judged. This could be a compassion-building experience.
Do you say grace in public places? Does it depend on who you’re with? How do you feel about trying this experiment as an act of discipleship?