I don’t know of anything Jesus castigated more harshly than he did the sin of hypocrisy. You may remember the “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” lecture that he gave—his audience had no doubts about how he felt about the way they were living. He called them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs,” “serpents,” and “brood of vipers,” among other things.
No, Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy, not even a little.
Still doesn’t. One of the worst things about it is that it happens to religious people—those who believe in God and who, in some sense, want to follow him.
I’m religious, aren’t you? You go to church, right? You like to pray and read your Bible and do religious kinds of things.
That’s why we of all people ought to listen closely to this, because he’s talking about bad places that religious folks like us can get sucked into.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:5-6).
I like public worship, and I think it ought to be important to every Christian. But like other good things, Satan will do everything he can to use it to hurt us. One of his favorite tactics is to get us to forget the real reason we’re doing what we’re doing.
If you’ve ever led a public prayer or preached a sermon or taught a Bible class, you know the temptation. I wonder what people thought about that prayer? Did it sound okay? Did it sound spiritual enough? Man, I hope they liked that sermon.
Pretty soon it’s about me and not him.
I think that’s why God likes private devotion more than public praise. It’s a lot easier to be real with God when it’s just me, my closet, and him. There’s no one to impress there.
No one’s going to critique (or like) my sermon, no one’s going to be blown away by the eloquence (or stumbling) of my prayer, no one’s evaluating how well I’m doing whatever religious act I’m doing.
Just me and the Lord, and he doesn’t need me to show off.
That’s why everyone needs a private place to commune with the Lord. Yours might be the cab of your car on your way to work, or maybe a secluded park bench where you hide on your lunch break.
Or maybe your place is ridiculously hard to create because you’ve got a toddler or two who follow you everywhere you go.
Here’s the thing, though: our public worship is probably not going to go much higher than our private devotion, which I think is what the Lord’s getting at here.
When there’s no intimacy between us and the Lord on Saturday, the public stuff on Sunday might slide over into something we don’t want it to be—something like going through the motions just to put on appearances.
And Jesus, as we noted, doesn’t want that at all.