Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 6:16-34

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 6:16-34
Jesus continues the theme of serving the Father with a pure heart (with a focus toward "heavenly" rewards) rather than for fame and other earthly rewards.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 6:16-34
Very recently, a famous pastor tweeted the following:
"A young girl in our church recently counted every time I said the name 'Jesus' in a sermon. She reported it was 67, not including the opening and closing prayers. I love my 'job.'."
For those of you who have been reading these gospel blog entries: can there be a better example of what Jesus was telling his followers NOT to do? Before, I would have been hesitant to call someone out like this, fearing it would be judgmental or disrespectful. However, reading these few chapters, Jesus challenges and sternly lectures the religious leaders of the day about their hypocricy. In fact, he uses these men as the primary contrast point in this sermon. The wonderful Stephanie Drury, responding to this particular tweet, puts it this way:
"The logic seems to be that if you say 'Jesus' a lot it means your sermon is extra-infused with Jesusness. But Jesus told the Pharisees their longwindedness and showing off their knowledge of the Torah was utter wankery and was all the reward they were going to get."
Can I get an Amen!

NOTE: Looking ahead, I see that chapter 7 begins with 'Don't condemn others and God won't condemn you.' I condemning this pastor for his tweet? I'm going to save this little gem until next time. Cliffhanger!

Back to the text. Jesus tells his followers how to fast, just as he told how them to pray: secretly. He goes so far as to advise them to give the appearance of not fasting. The reward achieved by fasting (enlightenment? more connection with the Father?) is diluted if it is done to get attention and affirmation from others. As a sort of conclusion to the prayer and fasting bits, Jesus tells the crowd to store their treasures in heaven, not on earth.

All these themes of kingdom living continue to strike me as beautiful (even if impossible). The ethic is both others-centric and God-centric, yet these two concepts are unified so closely that you cannot help but follow one of these without following the other automatically.

The next verses, 22-24, are fascinating. Jesus tells the crowd that the eyes are a window to the soul. I can't help but think of those in our culture who are dead-eyed despite the smiles plastered on their faces. From reality-TV stars to celebrity pastors, what these dead-eyed folks have in common is that they are striving for treasures on earth. Fame. Affirmation. Attention. Power. Control. Money.

Let me take a step back and confess my own shortcomings. I long for ALL of those things. I can get especially desperate for affirmation and attention. (Just ask my partner!) But rather than using these standards of kingdom living to judge ourselves and others, perhaps it is a tool to help us measure where we need the most help. And by "help" I don't mean behavior modification. Maybe this is where the concept of "repentance" comes in? We see where we lack, we admit it freely, and we ask for help. NOT so that God will make us "better Christians" (whatever that means). But that our lives will have more meaning. So that we can actually be light and salt to the world. So that we can be people defined by our love and connection, rather than defined by our pride and our victories in spiritual competition. Our eyes can't help but shine brightly when we have meaning, love, and connection! These gifts MUST be at least a portion of the "reward" that Jesus keeps talking about throughout his sermon.

The chapter concludes with Jesus telling his followers not to worry about normal, day-to-day needs, such as food, water, and clothing. With the context of everything Jesus has said in his sermon so far (treasures in heaven vs. treasures on earth), it makes sense for him to pivot to talk about what this might mean for mundane, day-to-day life.

I am disappointed with this portion of his sermon, however. Sure, the birds and the flowers thrive and are beautifully adorned. But there's a shitload of horrible stuff happening in the world. Millions upon millions DON'T have enough to eat or drink. Evil and famine and injustice permeate our planet. Jesus says in verse 33 to "put God's work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well." This verse is more familiar as "seek first the kingdom of God...." So, is this REALLY true?

I'm seriously struggling with these verses (25-34). Perhaps these words shouldn't be taken as a literal "if-then" promise. Perhaps they only "work" if we apply them to ourselves and not projecting them onto others. Perhaps it is simply another principle to follow. It's moments like these when I remember why I don't really believe the Bible (at least as we have it today) is the "inerrant word of God." Surely our interpretations are far from inerrant. My experience with the world runs counter to what's written here. Once again, I don't have the answers, nor do I know the reasons why. But that's OK.

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