Motivation Matters (Matthew 6:1-18)

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week of His crucifixion. Unlike other kings of the day Jesus rode into town on a donkey rather than a stallion. He paraded into town proclaiming His humility rather than His glory. He came to give His life rather than to demand the lives of others. Jesus was a different kind of king and His motivation for giving up His life set an example for us to follow. Today in Matthew 6 we get to hear Jesus talk about why motivation matters.

After giving six examples of the way Jesus’ interpretation and application of the OT was the antithesis of their current religious practices, Jesus taught three representative ways that His discipleship surpassed the external, legalistic, and pious life of the leading religious figures of the day. Jesus called His followers to pay attention not just to their actions, but to the motives behind their actions.

Motives are important, aren’t they? Motives are the best way to gauge your heart, because we are get good at going through the motions. In fact, we get so good at going through the motions at times that we can even fool ourselves!

  • I do something that many of you do with the wrong motivation, and that is attempting to lose weight. My favorite diet is the no carb diet because I can still eat meat and it tends to shed the weight, but I am very aware that it’s not healthy. You can’t live without carbs, it’s not good for you! But when I’m trying to lose weight I don’t care what’s healthy, I just want to look different.
  •  I don’t even have good motives sometimes when it comes to spending time with my family. There are times that I invite my parents out to eat simply because I know there’s a good chance that they will pay. That’s not right!
  • I have also been guilty of disciplining my children out of anger rather than out of a desire for their transformation. Sometimes I don’t care how it is shaping them, I just need some silence!

Some of you shared your struggles with motivation on our Facebook poll this week. You mentioned things like:

• Serving others with a desire to get something in return.
• Doing kind things anonymously, but secretly wanting recognition.
• (And perhaps the funniest one) Making things meals and gifts for friends who have babies so you can see and hold the baby.

Once again Jesus raises the bar because God doesn’t desire our sacrifices, He wants our hearts. Of course, in Jesus’ day people were no different than they are today. The religious people of Jesus’ day were doing things for public recognition so as to be admired and respected, but their hearts were far from God. They did the same types of things we do sometimes – they attended church for public appearance, they gave to the needy to make themselves feel good, and they acted more in love with God than they really were. I want you to understand this morning, that this type of behavior, that we all take part in occasionally, is incredibly dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, attempting to fake your way with God doesn’t work and you may fool yourself into thinking you’re in a right relationship with God when you’re not. Second, when you get into the habit of faking your faith, rather than growing in righteousness, you only grow in self-righteousness. Remember, it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship. In today’s passage, Jesus confronts the issue of hypocrisy and teaches His followers what an honest relationship with Him is supposed to look like.

Before we get into the passage though, let me explain one piece of pertinent background information. Today we are familiar with the idea of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are exercises or practices like Bible reading, prayer, and Scripture memory that help us to grow closer to God. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders of the synagogue taught that three specific spiritual disciplines were crucial – they were: giving to the needy (referred to as almsgiving), prayer, and fasting. Unfortunately, the people took these good things and turned them into something for which they were not meant. They began doing these to try to earn righteousness and to look good to others rather than from a sense of love and gratitude for God. So, Jesus spoke to each of these topics and taught the people to consider their motivation.

Giving to the Needy (Matthew 6:1-4)

According to the Old Testament, wealth is a loan from God, and the poor have a certain claim on the possessions of the rich and the rich were instructed to share God’s gifts with the poor. So, a systematic mode of relief of the needy was provided by the law and by the institutions of the synagogue. However, in the course of time the giving of alms out of mere pity and without regard to the permanent relief of the recipient, became a praiseworthy practice, which came to be seen as having the power of covering sins and even redeeming one from calamity and death.

Jesus spoke directly into this by explaining that if you practice your righteousness for the applause of men, that’s all the reward you’re going to get. He encourages His followers to have such pure motives in helping the poor, that it would be as if their right hand didn’t know what their left hand was doing. In other words, there should be no thought of self. Jesus wanted them to understand that religious activities are of no real spiritual value unless they are prompted by the right motives.

Prayer (Matthew 6:5-8)

In Jesus’ time, it was customary for a devout Jew to pray at three set times during the day. First there was a prayer at dawn (cf. Ps 5:3), then an afternoon prayer at 3:00 (Acts 3:1), and finally, there was a prayer after sundown (cf. Ps 141:2). Likely what Jesus refers to in verse 5 was the afternoon prayer where there would have been a congregation gathered as well as others who were engaged in commerce and other matters out in the streets and marketplaces of the city. To remind people out in the city that the hour of sacrifice had arrived, loud trumpets were sounded from the temple over the city – so that people might pause amidst their business and offer a prayer.

Jesus warns His Jewish audience not to be like the hypocrites who would stand in the fancy robes in the synagogues and street corners to gain attention for themselves. To the contrary, He instructs His followers to pray privately. He speaks of going into your room and closing the door, but He likely didn’t mean that literally, rather, He was simply saying that prayer should be between you and God. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray in public or with other people, we know this because Jesus prayed publicly often. Jesus simply wanted to give His listeners another motive check.

He goes on to say that not only should we not pray to impress others, but we shouldn’t try to pray in such a way as to impress God. Think about that – how ridiculous is it to try to pray for a long time or pray with fancy words to a God who already knows your thoughts and motivation! We’re not fooling Him! So why do we pray if God already knows what we’re thinking and what we need? We pray because it changes our hearts and draws us closer to the heart and desires of God. When you talk to someone you develop a relationship with them and that’s what God desires with you. Jesus goes on to teach us how we should pray, but we’re going to come back to that in just a minute – first let’s hear what Jesus has to say about the third discipline of the Jews.

Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

The third pillar of Jewish religious practice was fasting, or voluntarily going without food for a set period of time typically as a means of focusing on prayer. There were several different types of fasts with regard to what you could or couldn’t eat and drink as well as the length of time. There were also different purposes for fasting. People would fast to prepare for significant events, during a period of mourning, to discern guidance from God, and in times of national crisis. The words used for fasting in the Old Testament can be translated as “denying yourself” or “humbling your soul.” These ideas give us a picture of the humility that is to be associated with fasting. But just like the giving of alms and prayer, the practice of fasting was being misused.

Jesus instructed His listeners once again not to fast for the approval of others. He instructed them to wash their faces and put oil in their hair so they didn’t look miserable. The purpose of the fast was to draw close to God, not to gain admiration from others, so no one needed to know if you were fasting.

How to Pray (Matthew 6:9-15)

As I’ve mentioned, all of these disciplines were designed to draw people closer to God, so Jesus took the time to instruct them regarding communication with God. What’s crazy is that we have, of course, taken this model prayer and turned it into something that we often recite without thinking at all about the words!

Jesus’ prayer can be broken down into two sets of petitions. The first three focus on the preeminence of God, the second three are petitions for personal needs. So, make note of these things:

The prayer starts with the words “Our Father.” There are two things I want you to consider here. First, we need to be less individualistic in our relationship with God. It’s not just about us and Him, faith is to be lived out in the context of community. Second, God is our Father. That is a name that describes warmth and intimacy.

In the midst of the first three petitions, we see a focus on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will.

God’s name: While God is our Father, Jesus teaches us to go to God with reverence, honoring His name. This reminds us who we are and who God is. When we pray, we are talking to the King of Kings and therefore we are to enter His presence with the highest honor.

God’s kingdom: Israel looked to God to send His Anointed One to rule the earth, and now that Jesus had inaugurated the kingdom of heaven, He wanted His disciples to live with the anticipation of the completion of that agenda. So, as we pray “your kingdom come,” we are to align our thoughts and our lives with Jesus’ life, we are to remember that we have committed ourselves to join His kingdom movement, and we are to seek God’s power in furthering its ultimate fulfillment.

God’s will: God reigns in heaven absolutely, which means that all of heaven experiences His perfect will. Jesus prayed that the earth would experience that same rule of God. In His life, He modeled this – Jesus’ own utmost act of obedience in His earthly ministry was to submit to the will of God the Father. So, Jesus wanted us, His followers to understand that as we carry out the Father’s will on earth, we display the reality of the kingdom of heaven as we remain faithful to Him.

In the second group of petitions we see a focus on three aspects of our personal needs, that of sustenance, forgiveness of sin, and help in spiritual warfare.

Sustenance: By praying for our daily bread, we learn that we are to rely on God for all our needs. In the same way that manna was only given one day at a time, we are to rely daily for life from God, which helps us to develop a continuing, conscious dependence on Him.

Sin: Sin creates an obligation or “debt” to God that we cannot possibly repay. So those of us who have received forgiveness should be so possessed with gratitude to God that we will in turn eagerly forgive those who are “debtors” to us. Contrary to what is often taught, this doesn’t teach that we must forgive others before we can receive forgiveness ourselves; rather, forgiveness of others is proof that our sins are forgiven and that we possess salvation.

Spiritual Warfare: Lastly, Jesus wants us to be conscious that life is a spiritual battle. When we pray for deliverance from the evil one, we are that we must depend on God for moral triumph and spiritual victory. We cannot battle Satan and temptation alone, we must pray continually for God’s protection and strength through the Holy Spirit within us to stand strong.

Jesus’ Example on Palm Sunday

As we think about these things on Palm Sunday, we find that Jesus didn’t just teach about having the right motivation, He lived it. Although He was a King, Jesus considered Himself a servant. Although He was God, Jesus took on the limitations of human flesh. Although completely righteous, Jesus took our sins upon Himself and submitted Himself to death on our behalf. The focus of Jesus’ life was the glory of the Father and the salvation of mankind. He didn’t live for Himself or His reputation, He lived His life for others, and in doing so, set an example for us.


But beginning to think about the motivation behind the things we do when we’re not used to doing so is hard! So how can we implement this? I want to encourage you to write out 1 Timothy 4:7-8 and put some thought into this daily for the next week. In that passage, Paul is teaching his student Timothy, and he tells him, “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Likewise, we are to train ourselves to be godly. How do we do that? Well, we need to practice, we need to develop disciplines just like the ones Jesus corrected in today’s passage. Now, I can already hear your rebuttals, “But Pastor, that’s what messed those people up! Why would we do those things?” And here’s what we have to understand – the disciplines they were doing were not the problem, the problem was their motivation.

Jesus expects us to practice acts of righteousness and spiritual disciplines, but we have to understand that we don’t get extra credit for doing them and they don’t earn us righteousness or salvation, however, when done with the desire to grow in Christ they have the ability to change our lives. One of the most dangerous things you can do is to pray and read your Bible and memorize Scripture in a rote way for the approval of others. But be careful not to fall for Satan’s trick in thinking that you should neglect these disciplines due to a fear of becoming legalistic.

We must spend time with God through prayer, through worship, through meditating on (that is, thinking on) Scripture, and through serving others. These are crucial for growth in faith. But allow Jesus’ words today to remind you why you do what you do so your motives can be pure and so you don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re accomplishing something when you’re just pretending.

If we take Jesus’ advice it will lead to less hypocrisy, more righteousness, and it will allow the world to see a true picture of what Jesus’ kingdom. May these things be true of us.

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