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Religious Clowns and Circus Performances

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18

When our relationship with God becomes a matter of performance and pride, it is time to reexamine that relationship. Our focus and desire should always be on pleasing God, not impressing people.


When I was a little boy, a traveling circus had become a household name. It made its way by train around our country and even traveled overseas to other continents.

It began as the Barnum and Bailey Circus, named after its founders P. T. Barnum and James Bailey. They later merged with the Ringling Brothers, and in 1919, this traveling circus began advertising itself as the greatest show on earth.

The circus would run from 1871 to 2017, and millions of people of all ages would come to enjoy the high-flying acrobats, the lion tamer, the elephants, the costumes, the overpriced popcorn, and of course, the clowns. I remember going myself as a young child—it was indeed amazing.

But it occurred to me, as I have been studying this Sermon on the Mount with you on our Wisdom Journey, that famous three-ring circus was not the greatest show on earth. Oh no, the greatest show on earth is worldwide, and it puts on a show every single day. It does not have anything to do with animals; it has everything to do with humans. The greatest show on earth is religion. Religion worldwide is quite a production; it has more money, more pageantry, more costumes, and more clowns than ever.

There was a religious circus operating at full steam in Jesus’ day as well. The circus masters were called Pharisees—and Jesus is about to reveal their religious façade. He is going to reveal their hidden motives as they gave, prayed, and fasted. Those three activities were considered essential religious duties in Judaism.

The Lord begins right away here in Matthew chapter 6 and verse 1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” The verb “to be seen” comes from theathēnai. It gives us the English word theater. Jesus is saying, “Don’t put on a religious performance; the important issue is not that people see you but that God sees you.”

Another key word the Lord repeats in this passage is hupokritēs, and it gives us our word hypocrites. It referred to an actor who wore a mask on stage. The Lord is referring to hypocrites who hide behind a mask of spiritual activity.

Jesus warns His audience in verse 2, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do.” Down in verse 5 He says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” Finally, Jesus says in verse 16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”

In other words, stop putting on a religious three-ring circus; stop putting on a public show. Now Jesus is not against public prayers or giving or helping the needy, but He wants us to make sure our heart attitude is putting God’s glory on display, and not our own.

Now let’s take a closer look at the three activities, starting with giving money, here in verse 2. Jesus says, when you give, “sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do.”

I believe the Lord is referring to the horn-shaped receptacles along the wall in the court of the Gentiles into which people put their donations.[1] They were shaped like the flared end of a trumpet and attached to the wall so that money funneled down into a box. When thrown into these receptacles, coins rattled into that opening and effectively “sounded the trumpet.”

Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus refers to rich people casting bags of money into these receptacles. Think of it this way: in today’s economy you could quietly slip a fifty-dollar bill into that trumpet, or you could convert it into 200 quarters. That would be a lot more fun, wouldn’t it? That would make a lot of noise and get a lot of attention! And that is Jesus’ point: do not draw attention to yourself.

Of those who did so, Jesus adds here in verse 2, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” They wanted attention from people, and attention was the only reward they were going to get.

Jesus goes on to say in verse 3, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The idea here is that when you give money away, first, do not try to impress other people; and, second, do not try to impress yourself. Give—and then get over it.

The second activity Jesus addresses is praying, here in verse 5:

“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.”

In the Lord’s day, there were three times for prayer during the day. The Pharisees would time their movements so that they would be in a prominent place at these times, such as on a street corner where they could be seen from four different directions.

Now do not misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with praying at an intersection; I have prayed many times at intersections—and it’s usually, “Lord, please change that red light to a green light.”

Jesus is not opposed to public prayer; He just warns against making public prayers a public performance of spirituality.

The third practice is exposed in verse 16:

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

The only time fasting was required of God’s chosen people was on the annual Day of Atonement, as recorded in Leviticus 16. However, by the time of Christ, the Pharisees were fasting two times a week, on Monday and Thursday. But why those two days?

Well, we know from history that the Jewish economy had two “market days.” On these days, the crowds would swell in Jerusalem to purchase what they needed for the week. Guess when those market days were. Mondays and Thursdays![2]

Here comes the circus again. They even put on costumes! Jesus says they would “disfigure their faces.” They were known to rub ashes into their cheeks to whiten them and make themselves look pale, as if they were hungry.

Beloved, Jesus never commanded His followers to fast, but if we do, it should be a private matter, to focus on His Word and prayer, not to put on a public show.

And here is the problem: we are all infected with a desire to impress other people—even with our personal relationship with God. I remember as a young believer, hearing a preacher say, “I’ve just finished reading the Bible through for the sixty-seventh time.” He went on to say that he read through it every single month. So, I tried to do that and failed miserably. Evidently that preacher was superspiritual, and I could never measure up. No, the truth is, he was boasting of his personal devotion. It might have done him better to study one book of the Bible a month, rather than speed-read the Bible through in a month.

Beloved, there are two questions that need to be asked in relation to giving, praying, fasting, or any other spiritual discipline. First, What is your motive? Are you trying to earn God’s love or more attention from others? You already have God’s love, through Christ, and you are not going to grow spiritually if you depend on other people’s attention. So, what is your motive?

Second, Who is your audience? Frankly, your public prayers ought to sound a lot like your private prayers. Have you noticed that often when people pray in public, their tone changes and their vocabulary changes?

Beloved, here is the point Jesus is making: you do not have to prove anything. And if your audience is God, you can always be encouraged. God sees you and hears you, and God is enough of an audience.

[1] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Zondervan, 2010), 198.

[2] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Hendrickson Academic, 1992), 432.

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