As we move to the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we sense a transition both in the tone and the content of Jesus’ presentation. The transition, however, may not be as absolute as we think. The fact that a chapter division has been inserted here obscures the connection between the command to be “perfect” as God is perfect and the instructions that follow.
Matthew 6:1-18 addresses the three pillars of Jewish piety in the first century: giving to the poor, fasting, and prayer. These are disciplines that we, too, would do well to incorporate into our lives, and we would do well to observe the instructions that Jesus gives about them here.
Giving to the Poor
Giving to the poor has become a lost art in this age of professional social services and urban anonymity. If they are going to invest their hard-earned dollars into something, people want that money to actually produce positive results. Although many of us who live in cities are regularly asked for money, we know that those who ask may not be using the money we give for good purposes. And the last thing that we want to do is feed an enslaving addiction or facilitate some other kind of harmful behavior.
So, we give our money to charities (or to the government in the form of taxes) so that they can use the money to help those in need. I think that this is a good practice, but I wonder if we have lost something by not personally investing in the work of benevolence. I have been both the giver and the recipient of such largesse, and I have found that personal benevolence creates a bond between giver and recipient that facilitates accountability and that affirms human dignity. Moreover, personal benevolence reminds us that we are not, in fact, the masters of our own financial resources. We depend on God to provide what we need, and we are accountable to God for how we use the resources that He gives us.
So what does Jesus tells us about giving to the poor in this passage? He tells us not to do it for show. Everyone wants a blessing in return for their charity. After all, the money that we give to someone else is money that we cannot use for our own needs and wants. And the most important good that people in the ancient world could obtain—apart from the approval of God (which is difficult to measure)—is public acclaim.
But Jesus forbids his disciples to give for public show. Now, if their good deeds come to light as the result of the natural course of events and result in glory being given to God, that is fine (Matthew 5:16). The follower of Jesus, however, is not supposed to put her or his good deeds on display in a way that directs public praise to her or him.
Fasting is another practice that is no longer fashionable in some corners of the Christian world. Many of us have worked very hard to extricate ourselves from the deprivation of days gone by, and we have no interest in returning to them again. In my experience, fasting simply didn’t have the spiritual effects that people told me it would. It did not increase my ability to focus on Jesus, and it did not make my prayers more effective.
Nevertheless, fasting, too, has an important function in the life of the Christian. The Christian life is not about self-indulgence. It is about self-denial (Matthew 16:24). Self-denial is not something that comes naturally to us, and so we need practice if we are going to do it well. Fasting gives us that practice.
So what does Jesus teach us about fasting? He gives us the same command that he does concerning giving to the poor. Fasting for show makes it about us, when fasting is really supposed to be a denial of our own ultimacy and of the primacy of our needs. So, if we fast in order to obtain public praise, we defeat the very purpose for which we are practicing the discipline.
Prayer is a much easier discipline to defend in the modern, Christian context. People want to be relational. They want to see God as their Father, and they want to communicate with Him in that way. So, it is not hard to convince people that it is important for them to pray.
What may be harder to do is to help them understand how they should pray. I know very smart, thoughtful Christians who feel like they do not know how to pray. There is even some degree of controversy about whether we should think of prayer as a relational activity (see this provocative article by Rodney Reeves).
So what does Jesus teach us about prayer. For one thing, he says the same thing about prayer that he says about giving to the poor and fasting. We should not do it for show. For another, he claims that it is inextricably linked with the practice of forgiveness. We will have to talk about that next week.
There are, however, a couple of other things that Jesus teaches us about prayer. First, prayer is not a means for manipulating God. This is a concept that is deeply rooted in Jewish and Christian understandings of who God is, and yet it is one that I think a lot of us find it difficult to live by. God is fundamentally and irreducibly different from the universe that He created. As such, we (the created) cannot presume that we have the knowledge or the authority to demand God act in ways that we perceive as beneficial to us. And yet, in the pain and deprivation of our everyday existence, we presume upon God’s grace and forget both our rightful place and His in the order of things. The flip-side of that differentiation, though, is that God already knows what we need. As C. S. Lewis (among others) rightly pointed out, we do not pray in order to inform God about our situation or to convince Him to act on our behalf.
Second, Jesus calls us to pray in ways that are focused on God and not on ourselves. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. In spite of the fact that God already knows what we need, He still wants us to bring our requests before Him. But our focus on God rather than on ourselves changes the way we pray in at least two ways. 1) It focuses our attention on who God is and on how His agenda might be accomplished. 2) It reshapes the requests that we make on our own behalf into requests for God’s will to be done in our lives.
In other words, when we are praying the way that Jesus wants us to pray, we are praising God for who He is. We are asking that God’s reputation (not our own) would be built and that God’s purposes (and not our own) would be accomplished. Yes, we ask for our needs to be met—but not for our wants to be satisfied, and we focus on our spiritual well-being as much as our physical well-being. And we live squarely in the moment, not in the future.
The Rationale of Jesus
But what gives Jesus the right to make such audacious demands of his hearers? Forget for a moment what we now know about him. Put yourself in the place of one of the people who first heard this sermon. How dare he tell you that you cannot practice your spirituality with an eye towards how people will perceive you? He of all people ought to know that an individual’s self worth in that culture was closely related to how society viewed them, and societal perceptions of individual worth were closely related to perceptions of individual piety.
In other words, it mattered how the people in your family, synagogue, and town evaluated your piety. It could affect your ability to do business, your ability to find a suitable marriage partner, and the amount of influence you had on local government. And yet, Jesus seems to be saying that his hearers should not concern themselves with those things. Why?
Two of the reasons can be found in the next section of the sermon (Matthew 6:19-34). As we will discuss in a couple of weeks, these verses instruct Jesus’ followers to focus their attention and affection on God’s Kingdom and righteousness and to lay aside the worries that they have about the future. God knows that they have certain practical needs, and God has committed Himself to the task of meeting those needs. But that means that the disciple of Jesus is to have a renovated set of priorities, an orientation that reflects her or his complete trust in God and her or his complete devotion to God’s agenda.
A third reason is hinted at in Matthew 16:13-20 and made more explicit in the writings of Paul. Through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus created an alternative spiritual community (the church). This community is to provide all of the social needs of its members, and its criteria for evaluating members will not be based in the visibility of their spiritual disciplines but in the impact that those disciplines have on their lives.
Putting Jesus’ Words into Practice
In this space, I normally offer you an opportunity to join our conversation, and I would be happy to have you do that in the “Comments” section below. But today I want to invite you to actually do something. I want to invite you to join me as we seek to put Jesus’ words into practice.
If you are financially able, find someone in your church who you can bless with a financial contribution. Perhaps it will be a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps it will be a couple that needs therapy they cannot afford. Perhaps it will be a senior citizen who cannot pay a high utility bill. Whoever it is, bless them—not in your name, but in the name of Christ. And you don’t have to be superficial or preachy about it; if you do it the right way, they will know who their real Benefactor is.
Moreover, if you are medically, able, I encourage you to fast. You do not have to do it all the time, and you do not have to do it for a long time. Just find a way and a time that works for you. Feel the discomfort. Embrace the hardship. Learn the discipline of self-denial.
Finally, let us all commit ourselves to prayer. Do not be satisfied with the drive-by prayers we throw out there when we are in trouble or the routine prayers we offer in the mundane moments of life (meals, bedtimes, etc.) These are good, but what I am encouraging you to do is to take real time away from your busy life and address God on His terms. Do it alone. Do it with your spouse. Do it with a friend. Do it with a group. Just do it.
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