The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – Pt. 3

Posted: March 24, 2014 in Bible Study - Matthew, God's Law and the Christian, Misused Bible verses, Spiritual Disciplines
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Matthew 6:1-18: God is not interested in religion

Why do we want people to notice us?

If we take the Law in the wrong way – ie. as a method of becoming and being a good person – we will find that the temptation is strong to advertise our achievements. This is the case for a couple of reasons:

  1. If we see the source of our goodness as coming from within ourselves instead of externally as a gift from God, then we will ultimately consider ourselves deserving of the credit. ‘The one who does the work gets the glory’: “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7:18 ESV)
  2. If we are depending on our own ability to achieve and maintain our goodness, we are going to be constantly insecure, never quite sure if we have done enough to maintain the standard, and constantly aware of our failures; we will then seek to suppress that sense of inadequacy by seeking affirmation from others and presenting ourselves before them as successful and ‘all together’. A person who is constantly seeking the affirmation of others is indicating that they are not secure in their identity as a child of God.

In this section of his sermon, Jesus warns people against this action of ‘seeking one’s own glory,’ and show that what we might think is ‘being a good person’ is actually hypocrisy. He hones in on the three key ‘spiritual practices’ for the Jews: giving, prayer and fasting. These three practices were becoming accepted by Jews even as an adequate substitute for sacrifices for those who were unable to get to the Temple, and especially after 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed. Jesus is not necessarily instituting these as key disciplines for Christians here. He assumes that his audience (Jews) are already practicing them; the issue is not whether or not you do them, but the manner in which you do them: is it an authentic expression of your relationship with your Father, or something you think will earn his favour or atone for your sin?

1 – Payment or Rewards?

The term ‘reward from your Father in heaven’ might at first glance seem as if Jesus is advocating this – we do our works and in return God pays us back. Yet there are two words used in this passage, both of which are translated ‘reward’ in the NIV:
In 1, 2, 5, and 16 the word (misthon) means, ‘payment in return for work’ – a salary or wage. Jesus is saying here in verse 1, ‘The Father does not operate in this way. If you think you can get God to bless you by doing these things, you won’t, because He is not manipulated by your actions.’ When in 2,5 and 16 he says, ‘they have already received their reward (misthon)’ he is referring to the acclamation they receive from people; something that is vain and futile if there is no ultimate reward from God.
In 4, 6 and 8 the word (apodidomai) means ‘give away’. This truly does mean reward: a gift that shows appreciation or celebration of something we have done. When a child graduates from school we may take them out for dinner as a reward; but we don’t do it as a payment for what they have earned by studying; rather it is a celebration of their actions. Likewise, our Father delights to see His children walking in grace and truth and trust and dependance, and he likewise delights to bless us with rewards.

2-4 – Giving

The Pharisees did not literally walk around with trumpets which would be blown in fanfare whenever they gave to a beggar. This is a phrase that came from the fact that the collection bowls at the entrance to the Temple were shaped like trumpets (possibly a bit like the charity collection funnels we may see in shopping centres), and when you put your coins into them it could be done in a way that is very visible and audible, so that people would see and hear how many coins you placed, one by one. The fact that this was set up in a very public way is shown by the occasion in Mark 12:41-44 when Jesus watched people put their money in, and knew how much they had put in.
As a way of demonstrating their piety, people would speak openly about how much they had given; they would ‘blow their own trumpet’. Jesus says that giving must be done privately, so that not even your left hand knows what your right hand is doing! The only audience that matters is the Father, who sees everything anyway, so we have no need even to advertise it to Him. The Father delights to see His children acting in complete selflessness – giving in such a way that there is no chance of anyone paying us back or commending us.

5-15 – Prayer

Jesus identifies two ways in which prayer was (is) misunderstood and misused.

5-6 As with giving, it was possible to make your prayer life public and noticeable. There was a required posture for prayer: a man would cover his head with a shawl, and stand with his hands raised. There would be no doubt that they were praying. Some Pharisees would arrange it so that they ‘just happened’ to be in the middle of the market place when the trumpets were blown to mark the time for the afternoon sacrifice. And as with giving, Jesus says that prayer is a private affair, something directed towards God, not people.

7-13 Another way do demonstrate our piety is to pray long, articulate and repetitive prayers. (Some people may feel inadequate with prayer because they have heard the eloquent theologically rich prayers of others and feel they can’t measure up to that.) Yet Jesus’ emphasis here is not so much on being noticed by people, but on thinking that long, fervent and repetitive prayers will be more effective in making God do for us what we want to do. This was a ‘pagan’ (meaning Greek, Roman, etc) idea, based on their gods being fickle and disinterested in human beings, and so they needed to be bribed and harassed and manipulated to do things for us. It would have been unthinkable for a Jew to suggest that they prayed like a pagan, yet this is what Jesus is implying: they had imported pagan ideas of the gods onto their God, and hence they sew Him as someone who needed to be related to in prayer like the pagan gods. Instead, Jesus reminds them of who the true God is: The Father who knows what what we need even before we ask. This means two things that are quite incredible and revolutionary, which we see in the prayer he teaches:

  1. Prayer should be simple and short. Jesus gives a sample prayer that pretty much sums up the entirety of a person’s relationship with God and their needs, in ten short lines. Some take this prayer to be an outline of the kinds of things we should pray about; others as a prayer to be memorised and prayed word-for-word; both have value, but the point here is simplicity, which comes out of a confidence in the Father who knows what is best and cares for our needs.
  2. Prayer should be intimate. Everything Jesus mentions in this prayer comes straight out of the synagogue prayers that most people would have been familiar with, except for the opening line, ‘Our Father’. Most prayers would open with, ‘Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe…’ – theologically correct, but not very personal! Jesus is saying that authentic prayer approaches God knowing that He is the Father, and by implication we come to him in the context of relationship as children, not consumers.

14-15 The application of this prayer stresses again that true prayer must be free from hypocrisy. We cannot glibly ask for or demand that God forgive us if we are harbouring a grudge against someone else. Essentially, it is an an application of the second half of chapter 5 (21-48) which is all about loving and forgiving our neighbour. As he has been doing already, Jesus is highlighting the extremely high standard that is required of anyone who would presume to come into God’s presence:

The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29 ESV)

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)

Prayer is to be simple and intimate, but it must be done in the context of a right relationship with God; a relationship that cannot be established by obeying the law, but by receiving the free gift of righteousness provided by Jesus through his death and resurrection.

16-18 – Fasting

Fasting was a way of ‘reseting the heart’ before God. Fasting was not required by God’s law, but there were times when the Jews were called by God to fast, in times of national tragedy or when the threat of God’s judgement was upon them. It was an act of repentance and humbling, of expressing contriteness and dependance on God; it was to be accompanied by sincere prayer and seeking forgiveness and spiritual strength. It was never intended to be a show of piety, nor a way to climb the spiritual ladder into heaven.
Knowing this sheds light on Jesus’ 40 day fast in the desert after his baptism: he was preparing for the time of judgement that was about to come upon God’s people – a judgement He himself would put himself under at the cross.

A picture of a right relationship with the Father

These three practices, far from being a means to being made right with God, or a way to develop one’s spiritual or religious status, were designed to be expressions that illustrate the essence of a relationship with the Father:
Fasting is the expression of repentance: The admission that I am wrong and God is right, and I need to be reconciled to Him through Jesus.
Prayer is the expression of dependance on God; an entrusting of myself to Him because He has proven Himself faithful, especially in the sending of Jesus for me.
Giving is the outworking of this trust: an expression of munificence towards others in response to God’s great generosity towards me in Jesus

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