Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Shining vs. Showing Off
Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in [the heavens].
Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
- Let’s just focus on the first two sentences today. We’ll look at the rest tomorrow, but I’m including it for context.
- In the last chapter, Jesus told his new community to “let y’all’s light shine before others, so they can see the good things y’all do and give glory to your Father in the heavens.” He even said, “Your reward is great in the heavens.”
- But here he makes a turn: “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in [the heavens].”
- Whoa! Which is it Jesus? We’re supposed to let our oil lamp shine and not put it under a basket (or mattress), but we’re also supposed to not let anyone see it? This tension is deliberate.
- Jesus describes the difference between civic religion and prophetic religion. Civic religion rewards people for upholding the status quo, for making a display out of religious behavior. The things Jesus highlights in this next section—giving to charity, praying in public, public fasting—are all about impressing other people, but not creating any kind of substantive change in ourselves or society.
- Let’s talk about rewards for a minute: Jesus just finished talking (in chapter 5) about the sun shining and the rain falling on the wicked and the good. Our love should be impartial, like God’s love. It’s a stark contrast to these words, which describe religion as transaction: I do X to get Y.
- Let’s not read these words about rewards too literally. God is not a vending machine, churning out rewards for our secret righteous actions. Jesus is trying to redirect our attention from the reward of social reinforcement to something more intangible. Psychologists might call this the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
- The reward may simply be a reference to how Jesus started this sermon: “Happy are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.” The reward for the prophetic community back in the last chapter was happiness in the midst of persecution!
- The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, says, “The awakened sages call a person wise when all their undertakings are free from anxiety about results… Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments” (4:19-23). I think this is the direction Jesus is going. The “reward” should not be social praise, nor is it a jewel in your crown in the afterlife. The reward is God’s own self acting in you.
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