How to Avoid Being a Religious Hypocrite

Joel Osteen
Joel Osteen, photo via Wikipedia

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Your religion is your own business. If you’re using your religion as a way to impress people, God won’t have anything to do with you.

So, when you make charitable gifts, don’t insist on having a plaque dedicated in your honor. Talk about being a hypocrite! So they have a plaque, big deal! That’s all they have, really. But when you make a charitable contribution, just do it and shut up. The gift carries its own sublime reward.

And when you pray, don’t think that having a TV show or radio ministry makes your prayers better than anyone else’s. Talk about feeding your own ego! So they have a TV show, big deal! That’s all they have, really. But when you pray, just keep it to yourself. God can hear and answer you without the aid of a radio tower.

And when you make some kind of sacrifice, don’t go around making a big to-do about it. Talk about being a drama queen! So they put themselves out a little bit, big deal! That’s the end of it, really. But when you give up something, keep the rest of yourself together and don’t whine about it. Remember that “sacrifice” means you’re doing it for the greater good, and that’s good enough.

All Jesus is saying here is what the rest of us were thinking. Put it this way: of all the plaques that were being dedicated in Jesus’ day, how many of them are still being read today? How many radio shows have come and gone in just the last generation? And how many sacrifices have been made that, in spite of all the publicity given them at the time, we can’t call to mind a year later.

Gifts with strings attached aren’t really gifts, and (though you can fool some people for a while) if it’s really all about you, it pretty much dies when you do. There’s a reason why they call it “15 minutes of fame.”

The truth is that while religion may motivate doing good things – giving to charity, prayer, and consideration for others – the motivation doesn’t make the action itself any better. And, using religion as a way of proving to everyone just how good you are is really sending the message that you think you’re better than someone else. It’s a really annoying message because (a) it’s not true, and (b) nobody cares about your ego.

Sure, Joel Osteen may attract a few thousand people to his church on any given Sunday, and have several thousand more who watch him on TV. But Jesus wants to know, when the message is, “Look at me! And if you can be as religious as I am, you can have what I have,” then so what?”

On the other hand, if you give, pray, and sacrifice without the fanfare, the people who really matter – and, if you’re religiously motivated, God – will take note.

3 Simple Ways to a More Civil Society

Argument Cartoon
Credit: Bill Watterson

Matthew 5:21-26

You’ll recall the old law that says, “You shall not murder.” Until now murderers have been put on trial. But I say, don’t even be angry with each other. From now on rage will also be put on trial, and putting one another down will be condemned in court. Anyone who subjects another person to emotional abuse can rot in hell.

So, if you’re thinking of giving something to charity but you haven’t made amends with the people around you, don’t bother. Once you’ve fixed your personal relationships, then your charitable contributions will will mean something.

If you’re going to bankruptcy court and your creditors offer you a deal, take it. Otherwise, they’ll hall you before the judge and then off to prison. I’m telling you, they’ll hound you and make your life a living hell until you’ve paid all your bills in full.

Three points here:

  1. While the law holds people accountable for the biggies, like murder, most of the time, it’s not an issue that most of us have to deal with on a daily basis. (How many times have you really, seriously contemplated killing someone?) Road rage, though, is something that happens to a lot of people every day. Emotional abuse is way more common. So far as Jesus is concerned, those are the ones we need to address in order to live in community.
  2. The same thing applies to charitable giving (whether it’s at church or not). When corporations give big grants to build a playground to cover for their ongoing pollution, it’s called “greenwashing.” But it’s not just big bad corporations that do it. Giving a check to your church on Sunday, or to the March of Dimes doesn’t “make up” for beating your wife and kids. And volunteering at the library doesn’t “make up” for all the mean things you said to your sister.
  3. And, the same thing applies to litigation. Then and now, people were and are prone to wanting their “day in court.” Jesus says, “Court sucks.” Of course, if someone is determined to take you to court, there’s no stopping them doing it, but his advice is do what you have to to stay out of there. Once you get there, things have a way of going really badly.

All of these things are about moving toward a more civil society. You can’t achieve this where there everyone is angry and where rage breeds more rage. You can’t achieve it where there remain unaddressed issues of abuse in whatever form it takes. You can’t achieve it where material gifts are used as an excuse for relational robbery. And you can’t achieve it where the only way to work out differences is by litigation.

And here’s the best part: there’s nothing Jesus says here that requires anyone to be “religious” in order to start living it.