Community Group Study Guide — Living to Please God
This marks a new section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18) where Jesus addresses our motives when it comes to acts of worship or devotion to God. Jesus specifically highlights three actions: giving, prayer and fasting; however his conclusions can be extended to all areas of our spiritual lives — “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). When you make the approval and praise of other people your goal you will receive their reward but miss out on God’s reward.
It is important to remember here that Jesus is not condemning public actions of righteousness as if it only “counts” if what you do goes unnoticed. If that was Jesus’ goal we’d have to take Matthew 5:13-15 out of the Bible. In that passage Jesus encourages his disciples to live as salt and light in the world and that people will see their good deeds and give glory to God for it. Our good actions and spiritual devotion to Christ will show forth to the watching world and result in praise for God. Instead of condemning public actions, Jesus instead is is highlighting one’s motive. Is your motive the praise of God or the praise of people? Do you do specific religious actions “in order to be seen by others”?
By addressing one’s motives Jesus is specifically calling out the practice of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew 23:5-7 tells us that they would “do their deeds to be seen by others”, they loved to have the right “title” and places of honor. It is very clear that they were living for the praise of people and not the praise of God. This is not telling us to get rid of any titles we have or positions of honor or to not do things that will be noticed. Instead Jesus is highlighting how easily the human heart pursues these things IN ORDER to be noticed. We can see many examples of this in our world today from people who “name drop” to impress, cultivated social media profiles, and virtue signaling; which is doing something considered virtuous or righteous in our culture and then making sure that you let others know that you did it. Some of us chase prestige, titles, or positions of power and deep down we are doing that in order to find our worth or validation from the people around us whether we like those people or not. This is a hamster wheel, a treadmill or Sisyphus’ stone that must be rolled to the top of the mountain only to come rolling right back down. It is an empty place to find value because you’re only as “good” as you can prove and we live in a “what have you done for me lately?” world. Jesus teaches us that acting righteously to be praised by people is a sign of a lack of awareness of God’s presence. If we know that our God sees all and is with his people then we should not be so tempted to work for the approval of people.
One such way this can be seen is in the practice of almsgiving (giving to the needy). We may not use the word “alms” much in our world today but think of it as “helps” ministry. It was a practice of specifically helping economically impoverished people financially, materially or with your time. It was an act to help bring relief to those in need. Our society has outsourced much of that to government agencies, but in the ancient world these folks would be hard pressed to live without the practice of giving alms. It would be expected that the financially stable would give alms and what Jesus presents to us is a weird picture of the “hypocrites” giving alms but sounding trumpets and calling attention to what they were doing. One should give not expecting to be noticed or to receive credit for giving.
This word hypocrite is used by Jesus to point out someone who does the right thing but does not have the right heart. “Hypocrite” was a theater word that described someone who would wear different masks and play multiple roles in a play. There is evidence that there was a Roman style theater just a few miles from Nazareth in one of the Roman towns surrounding the sea of Galilee. Jesus would have been familiar with this idea and he used this image as a metaphor for one who practices deceit; and it has stuck in our world to mean that ever since. Someone who gives to a person in need, in order to receive praise from the crowd, is a hypocrite because the right action with the wrong heart falls short of what God desires. What appears to be selfless is actually selfish. The Lord wants us to live in such a way that we care only about his approval, which is to say that we worship him and not the people around us.
The remedy presented to us is found in Matthew 6:3-4, Jesus would have our righteous actions flow naturally from who we are. Think of it this way, when something is natural you do not really have to think about it – your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing. When you’re cooking a meal, typing or fixing something, much of that is second nature and natural. Likewise the image also suggest that we “hide” our actions from even ourselves (1 Corinthians 4:3-5 for another example). Jesus tells us not to let our left hand know what the right hand is doing. Obviously this is impossible to do in a literal sense, but Jesus is using this image to tell us to not focus in on our actions and pride ourselves for them. Instead we should direct our hearts to worship…, to focus our attention on God knowing that he sees the actions done whether it was noticed by anyone else or not; and he rewards us for it. That reward is increased holiness, spiritual maturity and his joy for us being even more known in our lives. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that seeking God is prompted by faith and a belief that he exists and rewards those who seek him. A right and proper motivation for doing good deeds in this world (almsgiving) is knowing that we have a God who rewards us. If we know that God approves of us, loves us and rewards us, it will allow us to walk in freedom from other people’s opinions and the snare of religious pride.
God desires for his people to live for his approval. The temptation is to do spiritual things to gain acceptance or approval from those around us. When you do this the reward you get is simply the praise of others. Instead we can expect a greater and better reward if we live to please and honor God in what we do.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 6:1-4
Matthew 6:1 talks about motive and doing things “in order to be seen”. How can it be that the right action with the wrong motive could be sin? (Read Matthew 23:5-7 to help answer this)
How does “practicing righteousness in order to be seen by others” look in our current culture and world today?
What is giving to the needy? Why would Jesus put this in a section of the Sermon on the Mount that will flow into talking about prayer and fasting? (Or another way to ask this question is, why is giving to the needy considered righteousness or a spiritual act on par with prayer and fasting?)
Read Matthew 6:3-4. What point is Jesus trying to make with this illustration?
What are one or two ways we can live out this teaching of Jesus this week?