Headlines from First Thoughts

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Holy Religion

Holiness in Relation to Religion
Matthew 6:1-18

In my community, we have three 24-hour Christian cable channels, three Christian radio stations, and several Christian magazines, newspapers, clubs, and schools. There is a church on every street corner, a coffee shop with every kind of worship style, and facilities with state of the art sound and lighting. Even with these amenities, I have wondered with Brian McLaren, “If Christianity is all around us, why are so few ‘good Christian people’ actually good Christians?” We have plenty of outward practices of religion in society, but individuals struggle to experience transformed relationships with God.

Jesus critiques the Pharisees for failing the Jewish people in a similar way. With the temple, synagogues, and religious ceremonies, why were the Jewish people struggling? In this section of the sermon, Jesus reminds them that outward displays of righteousness do not create change in the heart. The opposite is true. When one’s relationship with God is pure, a person changes how he lives.

Because this section of the sermon shows how the Pharisees were like actors, we can expect that Jesus and the lectors who read this Gospel in the early church imitated the Pharisees’ strange behavior. As we read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, we can imagine that Jesus likely followed conventions of ancient rhetoric to engage the crowd and disarm his opponents. He used humor, sarcasm, and parody to imitate the Pharisees’ voices and gestures to remind the disciples that they should reserve the show for the theater. A lector/reader in the early church recited these passages similarly.

From Acting to Authenticity
Most devout Jewish people in Jesus’ day followed a pattern of three practices: praying, almsgiving, and fasting. These were the basic expectations of any believer and were observed by others in society. The visibility of these practices became the problem for the religious elite in Jesus’ day. The leaders wanted to notice what others were doing and were not concerned if their lives reflected these practices. They were much like actors (“hypocrites”) who appeared frequently on the stage in Sepphoris near Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. They played the parts by wearing the masks of their characters but lived differently when they were off the stage.
As David Garland notes, Jesus tells them to take their obedience backstage (Matthew, 78). Jesus calls for authenticity in the life of the believer, marked by unseen practices of giving, praying, and fasting.

Almsgiving (6:1-4)
A text from the Mishnah indicates that 6 trumpet-shaped chests were placed in the temple for the collection of coins. The sound of the coins reverberating in the chests drew attention to the giver. Instead, Jesus says to give hoping that no one will know who the benefactor is (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 139).

Praying (6:5-15)
The location of prayer and the attitude of prayer affect how the believer seeks God’s will. Prayer should be handled in a secret place. The language of prayer should reflect a desire for God to get what God wants. As A. J. Conyers said, “The Lord’s prayer does not contain the phrase, ‘Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in my life.’” Prayer creates dependence on God for direction and yields to God’s wishes.

Fasting (6:16-18)
The practice of fasting follows suit. In the only New Testament passage that teaches people how to fast, Jesus shows that fasting is a private act designed to cleanse the mind and body to be more open to God. No one should be able to notice that another person is fasting.

The Authentic Believer
For believers to become better people, they must encourage practices that direct attention away from the believer and toward God. Piety must be lived anonymously; relationships with others reflect what goes on behind the scenes.

Modern believers must be wary of outward displays of piety masking as devotion. The church can become engaged in a culture war, caught up in politically inflammatory rhetoric, rather than devoting attention to secret matters of the heart that affect Christian behavior. We must ask, “Have recent political movements caused anyone to behave better? Have they furthered the secret in-breaking of the kingdom described in the Lord’s Prayer?” We can pretend to be obedient when all we are doing is playing a role on a script.

Buckner Fanning, retired pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, tells a story about his experience with living authentically. One rainy Saturday night in San Antonio, he stopped at a toll booth and realized he did not have any change. He offered to leave his watch until he returned with the required 50 cents, but the worker told him to bring the money later. When he arrived home, his wife informed him of an emergency at the hospital. After an hour at the hospital, he returned home to put the final touches on a sermon for the next day. Then he remembered the toll booth. He tried to justify why he should not return to pay the toll. After agonizing over the decision, he borrowed 50 cents from his wife and drove back to the booth. The man was still there. He said, “Sir, I’m sorry to be so late. I had an emergency visit with a church member in the hospital.” He omitted the part about sitting at home. The man said, “Reverend Fanning, thank you for coming back. I knew you’d show up because I see you nearly every morning on television. Every time you are on TV, you spend those thirty seconds talking about God and his love. I knew I could trust you.”

Christian behavior should be the same whether we are in the spotlight or backstage. Character does not require a performance.

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