Sermon on Matthew 6:1-8 – “Unvirtuous Signaling”

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-8 – “Unvirtuous Signaling”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, March 10, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Mat 6:1-8 ESV] 1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “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. 6 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. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Introduction

Probably you have heard of the term “virtue signaling.”

Maybe you haven’t.

It has been around for some years now, but maybe you’ve only heard it without hearing an explanation of it.

People are very against “virtue signaling.”

Believers and non-believers alike. All are against “virtue signaling.”

Well, what is it?

Virtue signaling is drawing attention to your good works. [REPEAT: Virtue signaling is drawing attention to your good works.]

Sometimes they are not even good works, but what you want people to think are good works.

Virtue signaling is all show, and very little reality.

It is like one of those giant chocolate easter bunnies that is empty on the inside. You think it weighs five pounds, but it doesn’t even weigh five ounces.

A common example of virtue signaling is when someone temporarily changes their social media photo to support the latest cause. They say, “I stand with …” In reality the person is sitting on their sofa.

Another example is letting it be known publicly that you’ve made a charitable financial donation with the intent that others will think more highly of you.

There is also virtue signaling done by groups. Companies often say they are “green” in an attempt to win favor with customers, but might be doing nothing to actually improve their environmental impact.

While this term “virtue signaling” has been around for only ten or twenty years, the idea goes back to Biblical times if not earlier.

The Bible is often critical of those who seek to draw attention to themselves. There are a number of verses on that theme, but the most prominent is our text from Matthew 6.

Jeseus says: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Practicing your righteousness to be seen is unvirtuous signaling. The attempt is to be seen as virtuous, but the attempt itself is unvirtuous!

Jesus says we are to do good things QUIETLY

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Sound no trumpets!

Give without proclaiming that you give.

Even “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

This purposeful exaggeration to make a point. A person only has one mind. And the mind of a person knows both what the left hand does and what the right hand done. It means that we should maintain a low profile when we give. Consider giving at church: It is good to fold your check in half or to put it in an envelope. Don’t just fold it up when it is a small amount and open it for all to see when it is a large amount. You don’t need others to see your giving; it is between you and God.

Even our quiet actions, like prayer, should be done so as not to draw attention to ourself.

Jesus says: “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. 6 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.

When I was in Jerusalem years ago I went to the Western Wall. And I actually have two relevant stories from that visit. Both of which I’ve probably told to some of you before. But I will repeat them here.

First, there is the soup kitchen nearby. And it has a big sign that says “Free meal to all who are in need.” Great. But then it says “Brought to you by the so-and-so family.” Does the whole city need to hear of their generosity?

Then, there was the man at the Western Wall itself. Praying. Quietly. But he stood so close to the wall and turning his head back and forth over and over again made the tip of his nose bleed on the wall and on himself. He had a scab on his nose which proved that this wasn’t the first time he had done this. Of course I don’t know his intent, but he did draw attention to himself. At least he drew my attention.

Well, Jesus continues against virtue signaling, telling us even HOW we are to pray. Without bragging or drawing attention to ourselves from others. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Now what ARE WE TO DO?

We are to have ACTUAL virtues, without signalling. And IF those virtues are seen, so be it. Some good deeds are done in society and will necessarily be seen. Other good deeds (giving, for example) are done behind the scenes. So is much work at this church done behind the scenes. And I suspect that is the case in many organizations.

Now, some have suggested that “the very act of accusing someone of virtue signaling is an act of virtue signaling in itself.” By calling someone out for their lack of real virtue and/or intent to display their virtue, can itself be an attempt to display your virtue. I think it goes to far to suggest that every time a person calls out another’s “virtue signaling” that he in turn is “virtue signaling.” I think we can correct others with humility, speaking the truth in love without drawing attention to ourselves. But this is often a politically charged term. So it is best not to say to others “you are virtue signaling.” There must better ways to address the problem.

Well, I said that there are other passages in the Bible that speak on this subject. Here are a few:

[Mat 6:16 ESV] 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.

[Mat 23:5 ESV] 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,

So Matthew’s Gospel is definitely the most prominent place for this teaching.

It speaks, as we see, even to clothings.

That makes me think of the “plain people.” Some might contend that there is virtue signaling among the “plain people,” the Amish and Mennonites with their clothing style. I’m not sure if I follow that line of thought. They are not necessarily trying to draw attention to themselves; maybe even the exact opposite. But I have heard of one group whose men only wears a single suspender for their pants. The idea is that those who have two suspenders are bragging or proud. So they wear just 1 to show that they are humble.

One more example from Matthew:

[Mat 23:28-30 ESV] 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

There are other books of the Bible as well that have this teaching.

James says this:

[Jas 2:15-16 ESV] 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

That sounds a lot like that “I stand with” mentality you see online. You’re not really doing anything.

I had head this distinction a while ago about East Coast vs. West Coast people. If your car gets a flat tire on the West Coast people will stop and say “Man, that’s a bummer, I feel bad for you” and then move on. It is empty. West, East Coasters, to the story goes, have a different problem. On the East Coast if you break down, people will stop and fix your flat tire (and that’s great), but then they’ll call you an idiot for not being able to fix it yourself. Of course, I don’t recommend either of these actions wholeheartedly.

Well, virtue signaling, is not just a New Testament thing. We have it in the Old Testament as well.

[Pro 20:6 ESV] 6 Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?

[Isa 29:13 ESV] 13 And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,

Well, what are some things that we can learn here?

1. Don’t let this hold you back from doing good deeds.

The Scriptures speak of positive ways the good deeds are seen by the Lord

[Heb 6:10 ESV] 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

And it can even be good for our good deeds to be seen by men:

[Mat 5:16 ESV] 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

So don’t let your concern that others might think you are “virtue signaling” to hold you back from doing actual good deeds. [REPEAT: don’t let your concern that others might think you are “virtue signaling” to hold you back from doing actual good deeds.]

2. DO good deeds rather than proclaiming that you do good deeds.

Second, and this is perhaps the main point, and the one we’ll end with, DO good deeds rather than proclaiming that you do good deeds.

Christians are called not to SIGNAL their virtues, but to LIVE them!

And in doing so, “We are to proclaim not our own righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness!

This is what we hear frequently in the Scriptures about boasting:

[Jer 9:23-24 ESV] 23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

This seems to be the passage Paul has in mind when he says:

“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:31, 2 Corinthians 10:17)

1 Corinthians 1:31

And then he says:

[Gal 6:14 ESV] 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

So let us DO good deeds for the GLORY OF GOD. He sees them, And the Lord knows the heart.

That is what we had in our text this morning:

[1Sa 16:7 ESV] 7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

I pray that the Lord gives us a faithful heart, to do His will for His glory.

Let us pray.