Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 6:1-6

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

Summary of Matthew 6:1-6
Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t do good deeds, give to the poor, and pray to God in order to get attention. Do these things privately and receive your true reward from the Father.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 6:1-6
In chapter 5, Jesus was comparing current practice of the Law to what is actually required in God’s Kingdom. It seemed that Jesus was making an example of the religious leaders--showing his listeners that they are not the example of holiness to follow. If any of these leaders were listening, they would be pissed.

In chapter 6, Jesus seems to be pivoting from impossible commands (whew!) to the concept of humility. Jesus describes how not to be humble by providing two examples of show-offs: those who give to the poor and those who pray in order to be seen.

Ooooh, snap. Without a doubt, Jesus is taking direct aim at the religious leaders and exposing them for what they are: hypocrites.

Besides humility, the other thing that strikes me about this passage is the talk about rewards. Jesus mentions rewards in each of the six verses. I break it down this way:
Give to the poor/pray in public --> Reward A
Give to the poor/pray in secret --> Reward B
Reward A = Public praise, accolades, and exposure
Reward B = what?
The concept of rewards in Christianity always makes me a little squeamish, specifically because I used to be a John Piper enthusist in the late 1990s. Back then, when I was still following a conservative evangelical path, I read a few of Piper’s books. My best friends were all about the Piper. The Piperian concept of the day was Christian Hedonism.

My understanding of Christian Hedonism is as follows: the motivation for us to live a good life is to get as many rewards as possible in heaven. It is an attempt to make "spiritual selfishness" a virtue. God uses the self-preservation he created in us as the primary motivator to do good things.

That's how I understand the concept, anyway. If anyone wants to add, clarify, correct my understanding of Christian Hedonism in the comments, please feel free!

My reaction to Christian Hedonism was one big MEH. It didn’t answer the questions that haunted me: Why is there so much evil in the world? How can anyone, let alone a loving God, send human beings to a place of eternal torment? Why am I gay; and for crying out loud, why won't God change me after years of begging? Unless it provided concrete answers to these questions, I couldn’t care less about these "rewards."

Today, Christianity makes sense to me mainly as a vision of a kingdom. Not a kingdom with an authoritarian theocracy, but a kingdom where there is no fear, no shame, and no injustice; a kingdom with a foundation of love for (and connection to) each other. The text says over and over that “the Father will reward you.” What does the Father exactly give as a reward? In other words, what is Reward B?

You may have a different answer, but the reward I am inferring from this passage is something that is both transcendent and iterative. It is hard to put into words, but I will try. I believe it must be a sense of joy, peace, and meaning. These “feelings” are only reinforced as one sees progress toward a more loving and more just world (thus the iterative part of the reward). It’s a reward that soothes an ache deep, deep inside the human heart that longs to matter. This is my sense of what the reward must be. I’m not saying I am currently experiencing these things. What I am experiencing is a hope and vision for these things.

To be fair, maybe that is what Piper was trying to articulate? You don’t know how much it pains me to write that! I have so much Piper baggage...


paul said...

I probably come at this from a different place, but I am not sure just how differently based on some of your stuff I have read. Particularly that you teeter between agnosticism and Christianity (if I am remembering correctly?).

Me, I teeter somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. I look at the words in the bible, but don't know enough to actually attribute them to Jesus. So, when I read stuff like Matthew (who's authorship we don't know), I can only imagine what the author/s is/were trying to say and to what audience... and why? So, it all impacts me differently, because I am not inclined to take it as directive from God or the Son of God to me... I just don't know that.

As a Christian, Jesus was my best friend... in my imagination. Not being facetious, that's where the whole 'relationship' took place. I don't know what other word to use. At one time I used the word "spirit," but I honestly cannot distinguish between spirit and imagination.

So, what might a "reward" look like from an imaginary friend? While I am not familiar with John Piper, his message is a pretty common one. The message delays reward until after death, which lumps rewards in with all those other matters Christians cannot resolve about God in this life. Stuff like where Cain and Abel's wives came from, or why there is so much evil in the world, or why God hates figs, etc..

It seems a common trait among humans to want the recognition and affirmation of other people. I am not sure that doing a good deed in front of others makes it less of a good deed. Is a hungry person any less fed if I do it in front of people instead of in secret. Why is it okay to do a good deed to get a pat on the back from God, but not a good deed to get a pat on the back from a fellow human? Are people so despicable that I shouldn't want their approval? Their affirmation? Ok, I get that it is immature to do good stuff solely to be seen, but it's possible to do both. Do a good deed because you want to do good and because you want to be affirmed for doing good (by someone you can see and hear vs. an invisible God who promises you'll get affirmed after you die).

I better stop... it's probably not appropriate to write more than the blog.

Kevin said...

No it's cool Paul. I totally get what you are saying. This posting is like a snapshot in time of how the current passage strikes me. I'm coming to it with my own history, which means I probably am still doing a bit of reaching and morphing of who I want Jesus and God to be in my own imagination. I think that "imaginary friend" constantly has to be smashed and subverted.

The other place I'm coming from currently is this whole notion of "Kingdom." That makes sense to me, for whatever reason. It's another way to say "be the change you want to see." Going through the whole Jungian therapy informed current thoughts too: the only real hope for the world is individuals finding lives of meaning--finding their true selves. That's oversimplifying, but hopefully that makes sense.

As for wanting to get recognition/ mind was totally on people like Tim Tebow or Mark Driscoll or any of these "Christian celebrities" who lay it on thick everywhere and to whoever will listen. But yeah. The Bible, Christianity, and certain verses can tie one up in knots (or mobius strips). I'm trying to glean out something good if I can. Writing all this out in public is my way of trying to still shake out the cobwebs and dust.

And those matters the Christians can't resolve about God? Yeah totally with you there. Fucking sucks. No good answers.