“Beware!” That’s the first word from our Lord to us today. “Beware!” Whatever it is that follows must be something dangerous. “Beware!”
And so it's really too bad that when we hear Jesus say, “Beware!” we take it the same way we do when we read, “beware of falling rocks,” or “beware of moose.” An amusing little warning that there is a slightly greater than normal risk that we may encounter one of these things where it doesn’t belong – but nothing so serious as to cause us to actually slow down or turn back.
But when Jesus says, “beware,” He always means that whatever lies ahead could cause you to lose your eternal reward. "BEWARE of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) “BEWARE of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues…” (Matthew 10:17). “BEWARE of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducee's." (Matthew 16:6).
In the Old Testament, God repeatedly warned His people in the same way and for the same reason. Through His servant Moses, God shouts,
• “BEWARE lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” (Deut. 4:16).
• “BEWARE lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them…” (Deut. 4:19)
• “BEWARE lest you say in your heart, 'MY power and the might of MY hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17)
BEWARE! There are BIG THINGS and LITTLE THINGS that can separate you from God. The BIG THINGS are obvious. BEWARE of the little things.
There are forces that come at you from the outside to separate you from God, and forces that come from the inside that want to do the same. The OUTSIDE FORCES are obvious. BEWARE of your fallen and sinful nature that wants to separate you from God. For separated from God, there is not only NO 'eternal life' that is GREATER than anything we can imagine – but there IS 'eternal death' that is WORSE than anything we can imagine.
When we hear our Lord say, “BEWARE,” we need to know that these are the stakes involved.
So, having pronounced His divine warning, “BEWARE,” we would have expected that Jesus would then follow with a list of sins that must be avoided at all costs? But rather, what we find is just the opposite. What follows Jesus’ BEWARE is a list of good things, good works..
“Beware of practicing your righteousness…” “Beware of praying…” “Beware of fasting…” Are these not the very things that the followers of Jesus are encouraged, if not commanded, to do? “Practicing your righteousness,” is what the baptized in Christ are called and equipped with the Holy Spirit to do. Having been declared righteous by His Word in the water, we “practice our righteousness” by “praying” and “fasting.”
We would have expected our Lord to warn us about the dangers in 'forgetting to pray' and 'failing to fast.' BEWARE of smoking, beware of drinking, beware of pornography, beware of lust, greed, anger, envy…”
But He says, “BEWARE of practicing your righteousness…” How can these good things be so deadly dangerous that our Lord would waive a red flag and sound the alarm and warn us to proceed with the utmost caution?
THE DANGER IS THIS. And the very fact that Jesus repeats this phrase three times should alert us to intensity of His warning. “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In other words, “your Father knows your secrets…” “Your Father knows the hidden motives that lie behind your good works and your praying and your fasting.” “Your Father, who sees in secret…”
He sees us “practicing our righteousness” with a trumpet to our lips, tooting our horn. He sees us praying and fasting, so “that we may be seen by others” – so that THEY may toot our horn.
And just why is it that we are so interested in being seen by others? Why are we so interested in being 'recognized' for “practicing our righteousness” by others? “Beware,” this knife cuts deeply.
It is because we want the approval and acceptance of others. And truly, if that is what we seek, we will have our reward, because others are always ready with a pat on the back for a good Scout who does his good deed, and says his prayers and tries to improve his life.
And you know as well as I do that approval from others is an addiction that always demands more. The more we get the more we seek. You can never conquer this addiction by satisfying it, it can only be conquered by starving it to death. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
To live with no regard for what others may think about the way that we live or the things that we do or don’t do or refuse to do – but only seeking the “well done good and faithful servant” from the lips of our Lord – that is a not only a very difficult, but also very dangerous way to live.
“Beware,” because the knife cuts even deeper than this. For if this were as deep as the knife cut, then it would seem as though all that our Lord was concerned about is that a little recognition might go to our head. And if the knife cut no deeper than this, we might be able to withstand the wound by going undercover and become the anonymous man or the anonymous woman – stealthily dropping off bags of food in the night, mailing kind notes with no signature or return address, anonymous contributions, suffering in silence. We can do that if that’s what our Lord wants us to do.
But what our Lord says here cuts “to the very division of soul and spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” “Your father, who sees in secret…” The great and mortal danger we face in “practicing our righteousness” is that we are so infected with the corruption of sin, that we will place the confidence of our hearts before God in the good works that we do and the prayers that we pray and the fasting that we undergo. The deeper danger than recognition and approval from others – is the danger within us, from within our own heart. We would, if we only could, ‘be like God’ and justify ourselves.
“BEWARE!” Be very careful about “practicing your righteousness.” Deadly sin lurks in the most pious places. The simple self-awareness of doing a good work, of praying, of fasting, is enough to seduce us into putting our confidence before God in these things THAT WE DO. Which is really to put our confidence before God in ourselves. And God sees all of this, for “Your father, who sees in secret…”
BEWARE! A 'good work,' no matter how good it is, has the potential of being deadly sin because it has the power to entice us away from ‘naked trust in the mercy of God to a trust in ourselves.” (Gerhard Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross. P.37).
Jesus gives the remedy to all of this, saying, “do not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.” And we reply, “but who can do that?” We can’t consciously be unconscious. As soon as we are conscience of the good that we do, it turns against us and leaves its deadly residue of pride and self-confidence.
We’re simultaneously saint and sinner and we can’t separate the two and tell the sinner to 'shut the door and stay in your room and let me “practice my righteousness” without you’re running it'. Life is just not that simple.
So, not even the good works, the prayers and the fasting count for anything before God. In fact, just the opposite. THEY COUNT AGAINST US.
Which means that the full measure of our life before God is represented well by this mark on our foreheads. DUST AND ASHES. That’s all we’ve got to say for ourselves before God. And if you will accept this, it isn't so much the GREAT CRIMES we committed that brought us to this, but the GREAT GOOD WORKS that we did.
But here's the thing – the really important thing. God does some of His best work with DUST AND ASHES. He formed the man out of the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being. And it is out of the dust and ashes that God still does His best work and breathes His breath into our mortal bodies and raises us to new life.
The prophet Joel declares the only safe place for sinners to escape forces from without and from within that would separate us from God. “’Yet, even now, return to me with all your heart,’ declares the Lord, ‘with fasting and weeping and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” (Joel 2:12-13).
“Your Father, who sees in secret…” sees what you cannot see. In your baptism, He put ANOTHER MARK on your forehead and on your heart – that marks you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified. You cannot see this mark, but “Your Father, who sees in secret…” does. And He has rewarded you NOT FOR YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, but with the “righteousness” of another – even His own Son, Jesus Christ, your Lord.
“For our sake, he made to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD.” (2 Cor. 5:21). We don't see this because we live by faith and not by sight. When we look in the mirror we see self-righteous, hypocritical, prideful, sinner before God.
But “Your Father, who sees in secret…” sees His Son in you and you in His Son, and for His sake, “He will reward you” with His life and salvation.
“Beware!” Let these ashes that mark us as participants in the entire, fallen, human race – not be the only mark that we live by. Let us also live according to the sign of the cross that marks as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. And when your doubts become as a noisy gong that beats faster and faster, and when your faith becomes so quite that you can barely feel the Spirit’s pulse in beating in you, “beware” lest you forget that “Your Father, who sees in secret will reward you.”