Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Secrets and Stresses: Matthew 6

In Summary:

Still working through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to the passages containing instruction on works of righteousness, forgiveness, and worry. Matthew 6:1 provides the introduction as Jesus warns His hearers not to practice righteousness for the sake of being seen by a human audience.

He then proceeds to provide a few examples of “works of righteousness” for the audience. The ones given are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting though I think we can see the pattern set for all spiritual disciplines. Forgiveness is bundled with these disciplines as if it is central to spiritual life: restoring relationships with others is vital in demonstrating and living the restored relationship with God. (Note that dealing with deep, harmful sins like abuse or adultery is the subject of a much more detailed post than this is. Forgiveness and its practical outworking need more than I will give here, but suffice it to say it’s not that simple.)

Jesus then goes on to explain where His followers should be storing their treasures. More than that, He explains why they should store treasure in heaven rather than on earth: your heart, your loves, they follow your treasure. This leads to the clear command that one cannot serve the One True God and the gods of personal wealth (mammon.)

In Focus:

The last section of the chapter focuses on shunning anxiety. Jesus reminds His followers that His Father takes care of birds and flowers, and therefore can be trusted with us. Further, human worry is ineffective. No man’s worry can extend his life, and each day has enough to fill it. The chief end of man is to glorify God, and this is done by seeking first the Kingdom of God, not man’s needs.

This pairs with the undercurrent of this chapter. Starting with verse 1, Jesus has stressed the secret nature of discipleship. By this, He has not meant that His disciples should blend perfectly with the world. Rather, He has placed the importance on the worship of the Father for the Father’s approval, not man’s notice. The secretive nature is not to hide one’s spiritual life but to expose it in the right direction.

Consider this pictured in plants and their phototropism: a plant is not turning its back on the shadowed side of the yard. It is growing toward the light, and anyone who looks can see it. Spiritual disciplines are oriented toward the Father: others should see the effects though the efforts are not theirs to note.

In Practice:

Practically, this works out in a few ways. First, finish the connection between secret devotion and worries about material issues. If we are seeking the Kingdom above all else, then we will participate in the practices of the Kingdom, like prayer, compassion, and self-denial, even while we live in hostile territory. These form the link in our lives to our true home, and when we fix on home, we worry less about the surrounding circumstances.

I think, personally, back to a time my freshman year of college where my knee was hurt, I was tired, I was lonely. And I was going home for Christmas. It was a long day on the road to a place I had never been (my parents moved out of state my first semester,) but I somehow knew that I just needed to get home. Fixed on home, the stresses of the road were diminished and the pain a little more bearable.

Second, remember that we are being watched for our devotion. A person’s prayer life can be so secret that none are aware of it—and this could be bad. After all, prayer is part of our confession that we are neither in this alone nor capable of handling this alone.

Third, practice the life of giving. Giving to those in need, whether they need the day’s bread or the year’s forgiveness. This is part of an active faith, one that recognizes that we are agents of a Kingdom that is unknown to many, and misunderstood by most.

In Nerdiness:

Briefly, for the nerds:

1. Where does the Lord’s Prayer end? With “deliver us”? Or with “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory?” Great question for someone with a textual criticism background. While the scholars might disagree, when we pray this way together in church, we keep the traditional wording that includes the doxology of “Yours is the Kingdom…”

2. There is something to be said, and learned, regarding the plural/singular shifts in this chapter, especially on the prayer sections. I think one key is that Jesus is separating the private life of prayer from the gathered life of prayer—when we are together we are more tempted to pray to impress the crowd; when we are alone, there is no crowd.

3. In the Lord’s Prayer, is it deliver us from “evil” or “the evil one?” It’s a substantive use of the adjective for evil, meaning that it’s not immediately clear from grammar. I think it should be “evil,” with a reminder that this a request, not a promise.

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