Show vs Substance – Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6

It’s amazing how church-goers can come to such different conclusions about the Christian life.  In chapter 6 we run into a few statements that, on the surface, completely contradict what Jesus says just a chapter earlier – and all part of the same sermon (now that my not shock you, but I at least try to keep things consistent within any given sermon – but all bets are off for the following week).  The statement that we give priority to will often determine how we practice our faith – unless there’s another compelling factor that isn’t being considered.  Consider Jesus words in 5:16 – 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 (ESV).  Seems simple enough.  Now, lets look at what Jesus says in 6:1 – Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward before your Father who is in heaven (ESV).  Similar sentiments are present in a few verses with regard to prayer, and later with fasting.  Okay, good works and righteousness are essentially synonymous in this context, so which is it?  Do we let people see our good deeds so that God may receive glory or do we only act in private before God alone and await our reward?  These seem to be mutually exclusive concerns if we accept everything in a strictly wooden manner.

Once again, context should clear things up (unless we’re married to the idea that just because Jesus is quoted as saying something it must be absolutely the case in every circumstance without exception – in which case, good luck harmonizing these passages).  So far as I can tell, the comments in ch 5 are part of Jesus’ declaration of the now present Kingdom of Heaven and the need for the new Kingdom’s subjects to openly represent this new program in the face of opposition.  The references in ch 6 deal with subjects of the Kingdom attempting to improve their social standing within the community (using the actions of the scribes and Pharisees as the common reference point – I believe we’ve seen that before).  I think we see an example of this contrast in action in the Acts of the Apostles.  Barnabas sells a field, brings the proceeds to the apostles (a public action), a need is met, God is glorified.  Next, Ananias and Sapphira do the same with a much different ending – and I don’t think the sale price versus the donation amount is the primary issue.  I suspect, Ananias & Sapphira became somewhat envious of the attention given Barnabas and the influence he likely gained and hoped to manipulate things so as to improve their standing within the community.  So, what’s the lesson?  Do good works, don’t worry about who sees it, remain humble, don’t use your gift/action as a platform to gain influence within the church (pastor, board, elders, etc), don’t use the actions as a point of comparison with others, readily acknowledge God.

Lets take a few moments to consider some of the topics covered in ch 6.  Most of this chapter deals with issues surrounding personal devotion.  It deals with giving to the needy, prayer life, fasting, the assigning of value (generosity), and worry (this last one ties more closely with the early considerations of ch 7, thus another reason it’s better to read/consider these passages as a whole – the entire ‘sermon’ together rather than just little pieces).  Also, the activities of the scribes and Pharisees stand in contrast (direct or implied) to what Jesus is saying.

Giving to the Needy:  giving alms was a required discipline – a bit more than giving a ‘hand out’ to the guy with a sign on the side of the road.  However, in an attempt to make sure that everyone knew that they were completely fulfilling the all the ‘letters of the law,’ those who controlled the religious life of the day would make a production (clearly not everyone did this, but common enough – the same might be said of prayer and fasting below).  At any rate, the focus moves away from the real need of a brother/sister and instead shifts to the incredibly ‘selfless’ act of the one giving the assistance (please note the sarcasm).  It’s also helpful to note that Jesus expects that citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven will in fact continue to provide practical assistance to those in need (and that there may in fact still be needy Kingdom citizens as it is being established).

Prayer:  just as one might gauge their spirituality (or another’s) on the basis of their gifts to the needy, prayer is often viewed as another ‘measure’ of one’s closeness to God.  It’s usually easy to spot the ‘professional pray-ers.’  The discourse is very polished, filled with lots of spiritually decorative language – often more closely resembling a lecture or extension of a sermon than a request or praise.  Likewise, its easy to pick out those who are convinced that they need to win a debate with God – as if we need to ‘win the point’ in order to guarantee the desired outcome.  In interest of full disclosure, I’ve resembled both at times.  I think most of this passage is pretty self-explanatory.  I’ll simply reiterate the closing passages – our expectation of forgiveness from God is very closely related to the forgiveness we extend to others.

Fasting:   a discipline closely (and necessarily) associated with prayer, is one that has fallen out of vogue in some segments of the church (such as my own).  Nevertheless, like giving and prayer, it is an act of personal devotion that is assumed to be part and parcel with the new Kingdom (which again only makes sense if we see the Kingdom of Heaven as something that is both present but not fully in place).  The passage should stand on its own accord.  I will simply state that a regular discipline of fasting is an extraordinarily powerful tool that will – in very positive ways – shape our view of God, ourselves, our culture, and others in ways we can’t begin to imagine.  Get creative and find ways to work this discipline into your life!  You’ll ultimately gain far more than you ever give up.

Assigning Value (Generosity):  few things say more about the condition of our heart than the relative value we assign to people and things.  Verses 19-21 and 24 are pretty straight forward.  I will simply caution that there is nothing inherently more spiritual or more godly about an impoverished state (just as financial well-being alone is not a direct indication of God’s favor).  The head scratcher is the couplet in between (vs 22 & 23).  I don’t claim to have it nailed down, but the best explanation I’ve heard (from a Lebanese Christian at a conference years ago, the details escape me) goes like this:  in this area of the world (even today among those who aren’t transplanted from Europe or elsewhere), having a ‘good eye’ is akin to holding your hand open – a posture of generosity, of valuing people above possessions; having a ‘bad or evil eye’ is akin to holding your fist clenched – a posture of stinginess, of valuing possessions above people.  A person who is generous rightly sees people as supremely valuable and has a good eye, s/he is spiritually healthy.  A person who is stingy undervalues people and has a bad eye, s/he is spiritually unhealthy indeed.

I’ll consider the issue of worry with the themes of the first part of ch 7.  In closing, the kingdom as imagined by the scribes and Pharisees (and as practiced by far too many Christians) is not only focused on policing the boundaries of our lives (defining just how far we can go before we cross into sin) but also concerned with making sure that the fence/wall surrounding our lives is breathtakingly ornate – with little real concern about the condition of the yard inside, let alone the house in the center.  If appearance is truly our concern, then perhaps we ought to be very concerned about praying, fasting, giving in private.  In contrast, Jesus insists that in the Kingdom both the focus of our conduct toward others and our devotion to God is really a matter of our hearts, the center of our lives, being radically transformed by the Spirit of God.  If this is occurring, then we need not worry who sees us doing what with respect to our prayer, fasting or giving.

– Pastor Jim Kushner

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