Saturday, October 23, 2010


Lecture 4: Practicing One’s Piety

From speaking about ethical activity, to which we can easily relate, and communal activity, which is the domain of politics, Jesus turns to another domain in Matthew, chapter 6: the spiritual life. From the Jewish point of view, however, practicing one’s piety is a political activity. The Law of Moses commands certain religious observances, of praying, of festivals of tithing. Indeed the first five Commandments of Moses deal with religious practice, “loving God” as well as loving the neighbour.

Jesus assumes that his hearers do practice their piety. In this sense, he is “preaching to the choir,” just as I am speaking to those today who have bothered get up early and come to chapel. Outward observance is the starting point of Jesus’ teaching. While there may be elements of His teaching that commend “doing things in secret,” it would be a mistake to think that He is rejecting public worship, whether feasting or fasting, or communal almsgiving. Certainly, the Church from its very beginning gathered together for these activities.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:42,44-47)

So Jesus is assuming they know that they ought to pray and to fast and to give alms. What He wishes to do is clarify the motivation for such piety and in the process to change the way His disciples carry out these practices.

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1).

The key contrast here is between the phrase before men in order to be seen by them and the phrase from your Father who is in heaven. Jesus’ reference to the Father in heaven is His own distinctive teaching. It is found mainly in the Gospels of Matthew and John, but here it is especially concentrated, occurring ten times in one chapter. There are a couple things about Jesus’ teaching about the Father which may seem commonplace to us who have lived under that teaching for centuries but were not so in the first century and even now in other religions. The first is that God is personally related to the believer, as father to son. This is a striking new thing even within Judaism which knew God as the personal father of the nation. Secondly, Jesus suggests that this relationship is interior – the Father is “in secret,” the Father “already knows our needs before we ask.” What an incredible idea that the Father is simultaneously in heaven and secretly seeing the heart. It reminds me of a chorus we sing here: “heaven is in my heart.”

So this raises the question: if the Father is already in our heart, why pray, fast or give alms, publicly at least? Is it not enough for God to know our good intentions? Let’s look at Jesus’ teaching in these areas to see why it is not enough.

First we come to almsgiving, acts of charity.

"Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (verses 2-4)

Jesus makes a distinction between the disciple and the hypocrite. What is it? It is that the hypocrite is acting a part in order to receive honour and praise. The disciple, on the other hand, is acting on the inner stage where the only audience is the heavenly Father. Now let us confess that very often we act from mixed motives. I sometimes give a little help to a needy student or staff member. I don’t advertise this (well, I guess I am right now), but there is a satisfaction of thinking the person who received the help will know and be grateful to God – and to me! According to Jesus, such mixed motives are a false gift: you give something and you get something back. You give with your right hand and take back honour with the left. Ouch! This duplicity is very hard to avoid, but Jesus demands it so that we shall be no respecter of persons in our charity toward others. This teaching also forms the basis for a kind of disinterested philanthropy, which is practiced by the best of donors.

Now we turn to prayer.

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. (verse 5)

The same logic applies to public prayer by hypocrites. They pray to be seen; hence they have their reward in the praise they get in return. Jesus is not condemning public worship but rather ostentatiousness within that worship. I think a clear example of ostentatiousness is the way in which people march up the aisle at harambes or church auctions to put their money in the basket. They want to be seen to be giving. Their reward is earthly, says Jesus, but it does not register in heaven. In terms of “heaping up empty phrases,” I wonder if this might not apply to some of our choruses that go on and on about how much we love God and Jesus.

Let’s move on to the content of the Lord’s Prayer. Let me begin by questioning whether it is right to call it the “Family Prayer.” Is it meant to be recited in the home, or with the church family? Perhaps, but there is a wider political scope as well.

Notice the first petition: Your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven. Certainly petition has a wide scope of the coming order. Indeed all the petitions use the plural “we” and “us” in addressing “our Father.” It is the praying community not just the individual. This praying community is looking out not only for its own but for others. How can they pray for daily bread without asking it for others. If God sends his rain on the just and the just, surely they should pray for the bread to be shared around. Similarly, Jesus has already suggested that we should be settling debts before we get to court, even with our adversaries. And the temptations which we resist, are they not often directed against those who would harm us, who would strike us on the cheek?

So while Jesus’ Prayer may be said by the church family, it is directed toward the whole community who live under the reign of the Father. One change that has entered into Anglican liturgies is the “prayer for the State of Christ’s Church.” In most modern prayers, we pray for the Church and the world. This seems right. How can we not pray for peace in Kenya, even as we pray for the leaders of the church to play their role in national reconciliation?

Jesus returns to the question of money at the end of the chapter. At first he was concerned about giving money, but now he turns to keeping it. In one sense it is obvious that you cannot be much of a philanthropist if you don’t any income and you spend it all on immediate needs. So one might wonder if Jesus is commending a kind of monastic life, where a person renounces possessions altogether. Maybe for some, but this is not Jesus larger political purpose.

Jesus observes that much economic activity and care goes into “insurance,” making provision for the uncertain future. He says that just as mixed motive in distributing alms puts the giver at the mercy of those who bestow honour or gratitude, so piling up income to protect oneself from economic disaster is a distraction from the work of the Kingdom. He says:

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (verses 19-21)

Let me be straightforward. Jesus is not opposed to people being wealthy, but he does see the rich of the world as having a heavy burden, the burden of handling Mammon’s currency. Those who are poor don’t notice this, but wealthy people are constantly bombarded with appeals for money. More often than not, they develop strategies for rationalizing their financial portfolio, which can include “tithing” a portion of the interest to charity. The problem is, they almost always assume they have a right to the principal. We can see such a person in the “rich young ruler” who came to Jesus. He was an upright citizen, no doubt giving his alms according to the Law. But when Jesus him (and loved him), He asked him to give up all that he had. The man’s sorrowful look revealed where his treasure really lay – with Mammon and not with God.

In one way, this hording of treasure is ironic, because we all know we shall die, sooner or later, and we cannot take our money with us. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes says: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.” (Eccles 2:18). We may wonder at his attitude, but in fact some modern philanthropists like Bill Gates have determined that it is not healthy to leave your riches to your children. It is like passing on a golden but poisoned apple.

Jesus poses an alternative way at looking at worldly possessions, or rather not looking at possessions. He suggests a person should focus his eye on something else.

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

The problem with aiming to be rich is – you may only get rich. If you aim to do something else – to design a new computer processor or visit in a hospital ward – you may get rich, more likely for the first than the second, or you may not. But you will receive a reward from the heavenly Father.

We were talking two weeks ago about those who volunteer for ministry and mission in the Church. It is not likely that they will become wealthy by doing so. They are, by the way, entitled to adequate payment, but they should accept the “wages” of the work before they set their hand to the plough. And they should do so with trust in the Father who supplies food for the birds of the air and garb for the lilied of the field.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day. (verses 33-34).

Sometimes I have heard it said Africans have a natural tendency toward fatalism. If someone dies, he dies. If the programme starts late, it starts late. If there is no pay this month, make do. I suspect such an attitude reflects the uncertainties of life in many cultures of the world. Jesus is counseling a kind of contentment with what you have, but he is not proposing laziness or sloppiness in one’s activity. After all, the birds are pretty busy hopping around all day, even as God feeds them. No, Jesus says that the disciple is to seek – that’s a strong, active word – he is to seek first and foremost the kingdom of God. Missionaries like Bishop Tucker who came to Uganda in the 1880s trusted their lives, usually rather short lives, to God, but they were also very hard-working and long-suffering under various illnesses and disabilities.

So what is Jesus’ picture of a society which practices its piety? It is a society of people who are modest and generous with their worldly goods, who are regular in public worship and diligent in private prayer and fasting, who are accepting of what life brings but hard-working toward the goals of God. If the Church is such a society, Jesus says, the kingdom will begin to come on earth, even as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

30 January 2008

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