We started our study of the Sermon on the Mount several weeks ago with the beatitudes as our preamble to a new world—a new way of being—a new way of being in the world—God’s way of being in the world, and we noted the way they invert the world—turn it upside down (Matthew 5:1-12). We moved on to the metaphors “you are salt” and “you are light,” and noted how they did not represent us being inverted in the world, but how they represented us inverting the world—like the beatitudes! There’s a good thought: we are God’s blessing on the world being turned upside down (Matthew 5:13-20). Then we moved through six particular contexts of experience—six situations fraught with risk: the risk of anger, the risk of sexual attraction, the risk of not being reconciled, the risk of not being trustworthy, the risk of responding to violence with more of the same, the risk of loving only those it’s easy to love. Such human situations. Such hard risks to avoid (Matthew 5:21-48). And yet, challenges to face—to overcome—to fulfill what it means to be salt and light—a blessing on our world. Jesus never said this was easy, right?
And now, we get to a warning. Be-ware. (Quick digression. I want us to consider the word. Etymologically it comes from “be wary”—“be cautious.” As does be aware. Interesting, isn’t it, that awareness is rooted in caution, but we hold them in tension. Be ware and be aware. Be wary and be observant—just notice.)
Beware—be aware—of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. A couple of things we need to add to our hearing of this verse for it to make the sense it needs to make. First, “piety” is a word, elsewhere translated as righteousness—as justice—as God’s just judgment. (Gerhard Kittel, ed., translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 192-210.) A common understanding of the word “piety” risks making this too much about the private options of faith, but this is about practicing righteousness—practicing justice. This is about “right conduct … [following] the will of God” (Ibid., 198). Second, there is an idea here, and throughout the Sermon on the Mount, that a good deed receives one reward and that any reward, no matter how trivial, counts (Ibid., 198). So you really don’t want to settle for a lesser reward at the expense of the greater. Yes, girls, you can have a piece of candy now (one peanut butter cup, one snack-size Snickers, or three Starbursts), or you can wait, and after supper have a generous slice of made from scratch chocolate sheet cake with cinnamon chocolate icing and homemade vanilla bean ice cream. But if you choose that piece of candy, that’s it—no cake.
And just because individual words have seemed particularly important thinking about this text, consider practicing righteousness. We all know the aphorism: practice makes perfect. What you practice is what you get good at. We also know that whatever it is we practice (some sports skill, or music, writing), we want to get it all right. If we practice the right thing the wrong way, we’re not doing ourselves much good.
So after the general warning, Jesus zeros in on three particular areas in which to be careful. Three spiritual disciplines we’re to practice the right way. They’re identified as almsgiving, praying, and fasting. Other than prayer (hopefully!), they come across as somewhat foreign to most of us. So let’s consider almsgiving our good works—what we do to help others. And let’s consider fasting the disciplines we submit to for our faith—the disciplines we impose on our living—our wanting—our budget—our time—the disciplines we impose on our living because of our faith.
First point. These spiritual disciplines were all a familiar and an important part of Judaism, and all were assimilated pretty much without question into the early church, and obviously here, given Jesus’ own seal of approval. Second point. These disciplines are not unimportant. These are the things we do to practice faithfulness—righteousness—justice. Third point. We’ve noted how so much of Jesus’ teaching is directed to us—to y’all. His comments on these three disciplines are directed to you, singular. (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook: Matthew 1-12: Revised & Expanded Edition [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1990] 283) Jesus is very particular here about what you need to do and how you need to do it. This is the practice of your faith, not ours. Fourth point. In each discipline, Jesus suggests you have an audience and that you choose your audience. There’s just one audience that can matter to you, and you get to pick which one it’s going to be. This is back to that idea of one reward. A little piece of candy now, or a rich dessert after dinner. Do you play to the crowds? Or to God? Some, Immanuel Kant in particular, have thought virtue should be its own reward (“virtus sibi ipsi premium” [Ibid., 320]). Surely practicing righteousness doesn’t fall under the rubrics of consumerism, but Jesus is nothing if not realistic, and we need to be motivated. Fifth point. In each discipline, Jesus says don’t be like the hypocrites who play to other people.
Okay, so occasionally, a word study is important. Not as often as preachers tend to think, but sometimes. And sometimes, it even changes everything. And the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek verb originally meaning “to interpret.” It came to mean “to act,” and the noun “hypocrite” “almost always means ‘actor’” (Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, eds., translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VIII [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1972] 559)—having to do with putting on a mask and interpreting a role. “The comparison can … be used negatively: the stage is a sham world and the actor a deceiver” (Ibid., 562. Emphasis mine.). That’s how we tend to hear the word “hypocrite.” Here’s the thing: in basically all classical and Hellenistic usage, it has no negative ethical connotation. Here’s the other thing: “In more or less the whole literature of Dispersion Judaism [including the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint] one … finds a use which differs … from that of classical and Hellenistic literature” (Ibid., 565). There is a negative connotation, but—but, … it’s not the connotation of someone bad trying to look good. It is rather the connotation of the good person looking bad. You get it? It changes everything, but it’s absolutely consistent with how Jesus began. It is, again, the affirmation that we were created good (you are salt, you are light), and that evil is something artificial to our essence that we do put on, but it hides what’s most true. It disguises what’s most real.
On Facebook yesterday, someone posted this status: “Seriously considering a paradigm shift.” When others posted questions about what he meant by that, he added: “Considering adopting the perspective that people are bad until proving themselves good, rather than the other way around. People frustrate me.” I sure understand that, don’t you? And Jesus certainly did too. But he is very focused, as part of his teaching, not to allow legitimate frustration to shape a different reality from what is essentially true. You can say people do bad things. You cannot say—you may not say—they are bad. Because then what you’re doing is recreating God’s creation in the image of your own fear and your own anger. And boy are we good at that!
Hypocrisy as someone bad trying to appear good, you see, is a charge so very easy to level at others. Hypocrisy as someone good who nonetheless acts badly is more easily accepted as a comment on myself. Right? Nothing if not realistic! But if that’s who I am (good acting badly), doesn’t that have to change how I see others? Doesn’t that have to change how I see everybody else?
Sixth point. Let’s wade right in. Here we have Jesus saying don’t practice your faith in front of people. So, you remember this: “You are the light of the world …. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16)? Are others to see our good works or not? And some divide into exterior and interior expressions of faith. Some make distinctions between exterior and interior disciplines. Some, with great glee, point to inconsistency. “But ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.’ … The Gospel is not intended as halakah, a rule for life, but to stimulate imagination and personal responsibility…. The jagged edge of Jesus’ saying should not be too quickly rounded off to make them consistent with other biblical teachings, or even with each other. Talk of the kingdom of God generates a certain wildness that is lost if it is domesticated” (M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VIII [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 183). It’s two different affirmations anyway: what others should notice in us is God. Remember, light is not what you look at. Light is what allows you to see what’s there. Your good works are the light that allows people to see God. What others should notice in us is God, but who we should want noticing us is God.
Seventh point. In the midst of these three warnings, Jesus inserts a teaching. We’re warned about our good works. We’re warned about prayer. Then Jesus teaches us how to pray, and we get the Lord’s prayer. And it’s not just another word about how to pray (in private, to God), it’s also what to pray. Not so much specifically. Notice Jesus says pray in this way. Here’s a pattern—a paradigm—a model.
As with our entire text, we’re doing more of an overview today. Some other time, we’ll take more time to spend on the prayer itself. We need to take some more time on this prayer some other time. But today, we look at the prayer as it fits into its context. It begins with the intimate address: our (we’re back to plural pronouns)—our daddy, who is in heaven—and that’s actually another singular translation of a plural—who is in the heavens—who is in the skies—in all the skies over everyone and everything. Our daddy who is in all the skies.
And after this address, there follow six petitions (though some divide the last one into two to get seven!). The first three petitions are focused on God: hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in the heavens. The next three petitions are about us—all of us: give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Note we start with the basic necessity of food, then move onto the way we relate to each other, and then, and only then, get to the idea of temptation and evil—which is where Jesus’ prayer ends. The church added “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever amen.” The church added that because the church has never been as comfortable with messiness as Jesus is—has always been invested in the happy ever after—the good ending. Jesus is fine ending with a dark warning. Some suggest the pattern leaves it open for personal petition here. With priorities ordered, what is my personal petition here at the end? I would suggest that’s the seventh petition.
We emerge from the prayer only to be warned again, this time about the disciplines we impose on our living because of our faith. Which audience do you choose? So now, note that the prayer is not just embedded in these warnings, it’s embedded in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it’s pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Sermon. “There are about 116 Greek lines before it, about 114 after” (Bruner, 292). And note that in the middle of the prayer in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, in the midst of the basic affirmation that in God’s eyes, we’re good, salt, full of light, the pray-er prays for the forgiveness of his or her own shortcomings (Ibid.). Nothing if not realistic!
We keep going. We finish our text today looking at three observations. Where do you keep your treasure? On earth? Or in heaven? Because where your treasure is, there your heart will be too. There’s the image of the eye as the healthy or unhealthy lamp of the body, and there’s the choice between two masters. It’s back to that idea of what reward do you want—in keeping with the whole idea of reward Jesus has been developing. You will get your reward. Don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t settle for less than you deserve.
All these dualities: public or private, this audience or that one, this reward or that one, doing good works this way or that way, praying this way or that way (pray this way), fasting this way or that way. treasure here, treasure there, a healthy eye, an unhealthy eye, a body full of light or full of darkness, this master or that one, a generic small piece of candy or a generous slice of made from scratch chocolate sheet cake with cinnamon chocolate icing and homemade vanilla bean ice cream—all these dualities, and they boil down to the basic choice—the fundamental decision: are we going to be who God created us to be—who Jesus teaches us to be—who God helps us be, or will we allow ourselves to keep on the mask of a distorted reality?
Note with these three warnings, this prayer, and these three observations, it’s hard to look at anyone else. Oh, we can. We’re pretty good at directing any type of critical gaze out at others! But the focus here is on the self. Not how is or isn’t someone else a hypocrite, but how am I? And notice how if we do direct our gaze out, we’re to affirm the basic goodness of people—of all people (including ourselves). We’re to see evil as God does—with great sadness, deep hope, and with a steadfast love. We’re to see people with the same grace we hope God sees us—the same grace with which Jesus assures us God does see us.
Ultimately, life is about whether or not we embrace a relationship that restores the right order of creation. As hard as it may be, as foreign as it may seem—as unnatural, the affirmation of the Sermon on the Mount is still that we are rightside up people in an upside down world—people working toward right relationship with God, with others, in creation. So will you allow yourself to be shaped by the praying of Jesus’ prayer? Because that’s what it will do—guiding us into appropriate prioritizing—knowing what’s most important to you, and allowing that to shape your living—to guide you in your being. We pray that that’s God. but beware—be aware. it might well not be. But, here’s the thing: if you can get this how and what … if you can work on it … if you try … everything else begins to fall into place.
What a word for us in days of such anger and divisiveness. Beware. Be aware. See the truth. We’re really not observant these days. We take entirely too much at face value. We believe soundbytes—the apparent—the easy—the worst—of others and of ourselves. Who’s watching that we care about? Do we really need to consult polls before we act—before we decide what to say—before we decide what’s right? There’s only one audience that matters. Because we want God whom we love who loves us so to—imagine it!—smile in appreciation—to recognize our effort—our intent. And it’s not the omnipotent judge who will mete out just rewards. It’s not. It’s the all loving parent who will gratefully receive and proudly display children’s art on the divine refrigerator in the heavens. And if we have to clarify, “No, that’s a cat! I drew a cat. I was trying to draw a cat. Don’t you see?” Well, that’s okay. And a fine cat it is!