Lent, Day 28 — Ask, Seek, Knock

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Ask, Seek, Knock

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, [and the searcher finds, and the knocker has the door opened.] Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. (Matthew 7:7-12, NRSV)

  1. One thing that strikes me about these verses is how emphatically universal they are. Everyone (πᾶς, pas) who asks receives. Not just some. Everyone. For example: The seeker? Finds. The one who knocks? The door gets opened. Jesus speaks with certainty. Whether you are asking, seeking, or knocking, God will act.
  2. The analogy Jesus uses is powerful. You are God’s child, and God wants good things for you.
  3. Jesus also calls back his earlier language of our parent “in the heavens.” The creator of the cosmos wants to give good things to us.
  4. “If you who are evil…” Jesus is not calling us evil. He is using an ancient rhetorical form called “from the lesser to the greater”—if X is true under these conditions, how much more is X true under greater conditions. God’s goodness is so complete that God want to meet our deepest needs.
  5. These verses often sound disjointed, like a collection of random thoughts. But I believe there is a consistent thread here. I will paraphrase to show how they are related: “Don’t judge others, because you’ll be judged in the same way. Sure, you may think you are helping by taking the speck out of someone’s eye, but you are not qualified to be their surgeon. And you may think you are giving them something holy, but they probably won’t appreciate it, the way swine won’t appreciate pearls. So don’t judge. Everyone who asks, including the person you want to judge, will receive what they need most. The one who seeks will find, and the one who knocks will be let in. So look after yourself. It isn’t your place to tell someone they aren’t seeking properly.”
  6. Jesus seems to be saying, “Seek your own path, instead of worrying so much about your neighbor. Let them seek their own.” Do it with confidence, trusting both your neighbor and yourself to God. Everyone who is seeking will find what they are seeking.
  7. I’m willing to consider that Matthew has just taken a grab bag of Jesus’s sayings and dumped them in this last chapter in no particular order. But I prefer reading these as related statements.
  8. Later, in Chapter 18, Jesus will tell his disciples, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you” (18:19). Like here, these words follow instructions on judging or correcting our siblings. So I don’t think Jesus means God will give us money, fame, or whatever we ask, like some “Name it and Claim it” pastors say. I think he’s talking specifically about spiritual truth—the kind that has to do with correction and community life.
  9. Jesus said earlier to seek the kin-dom. Seeking, asking, knocking — these are verbs we use about enlightenment, about “The Way.” From context, I don’t think the “good things” Jesus mentions are things we can possess. I think they are more like enlightenment, or places we arrive on a shared journey.

Lent, Day 26 — Judging

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
(Matthew 7:1-5, NRSV)

  1. Jesus turns from how we should live for today to how we relate to each other.
  2. Again, Jesus indicates that forgiveness and judgment are reciprocal: what we deal out comes back to us. As I’ve said, I don’t think that God is keeping score in a ledger. Instead, we are opening or closing ourselves off to grace when we let other people be. Can you see how this relates to “letting tomorrow worry about itself?”
  3. We have such a need to be seen as superior to others that we try to recruit God into our scheme. This is also rooted in our fear of the future and in our own insecurity.
  4. Jesus notes a tendency we know to be true: we recognize and hate in others what is true about ourselves. Whenever we encounter someone whose activity grates on us, it is because there is something unresolved in us. Often the people who annoy us most are the kinds of people we are trying very hard (and often failing) not to be. That’s why our neighbor’s splinter bothers us more than our own log or beam.
  5. How many virulently sex-negative and anti-gay politicians and preachers have been caught in affairs? How often does our president condemn corruption? Judging others is often a form of projection. I see it everywhere because it is true of me.
  6. And yet even here we need to recognize: what we most dislike in these public figures is what we dislike in ourselves. Why does the president’s behavior get under my skin? Is it because I remember all the times I’ve been caught and embarrassed in my own lies? Or is it because he gets away with it?
  7. I’ve switched back to the New Revised Standard Version here for one reason: Jesus uses the word hypocrite, actor, again. It’s a call back to the last chapter about giving, praying, and fasting. But in this case, we’re not necessarily acting for the approval of others. Who are we acting for? We put on an act for ourselves. We need to see ourselves as righteous. But we cannot see the log in our own eye. Our self-image is important to us.
  8. The phrases “virtue signaling” and “moral licensing” are modern terms that describe a) how we try to appear virtuous to others and b) how we “let ourselves off the hook” with minor infractions if we think of ourselves as generally good people. Jesus is rounding out his description of hypocrisy here. Religious actors are ones who keep up a front not only to look good to others, but to convince themselves of their own righteousness.
  9. But Jesus isn’t done yet. He’s got something important to add to this mix. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

Lent, Day 25 — Recap of Chapters 5 & 6

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Recap of Chapters 5 & 6

We’ve read through two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, and we are a little over half way to Easter. This is a good time to pause and summarize. See if you can follow the thread of what Jesus is saying in what we’ve covered so far.

  1. This Sermon on the Mount is a spiritual manifesto, a charter for the community that Jesus wants to create. For the first decades of its existence, this community was simply called “The Way.” Jesus is setting out The Way in these verses.
  2. This called-out community (ekklesia, or church) is to live with an unearthly happiness, as a prophetic community (Matthew 5:1-16).
  3. They are not throwing the Bible out of the window (5:17-20), though fundamentalists may be jealous of their freedom. Instead, they are letting their attitudes and relationships be shaped by a deeper reality to which the Biblical rules are pointing. Jesus is not lowering the bar; he is raising it (Matthew 5:21-42).
  4. All of the law and prophets point to the ethic of impartial love (5:43-48) for all people and for all creation. We are meant to love completely, and are fulfilled as humans when we do.
  5. Complete love means we don’t perform religiosity for social acceptance. Giving, praying, and fasting are between us and God. We are neither like the religious hypocrites nor like those who do not know God (6:1-18).
  6. Because we are one with all of humanity, we recognize that grace and forgiveness is the only thing that sustains us. We must free ourselves from karma—we cannot function on a theology of deserving (6:12-15).
  7. Attachment to wealth is a trap. Our relationship to money can distort our hearts, our perception, and our relationship to God. It can skew our vision of the world, and compromise our inner light (6:19-24).
  8. Our attachment to money is not simply greed; it is a symptom of our fear. By keeping our attention on the present moment and the life around us, we can free ourselves from worry about the future (6:25-34).

Since so much of what Jesus is saying is about attitudes, thinking, and emotions, we often hear these words as if they are addressed to us as individuals. Certainly Jesus means all of this to apply individually. But all of these instructions are also supposed to be characteristics of the community as a whole. When he describes conventional “being nice,” Jesus asks, “Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (5:46-47). Y’all are supposed to be different, Jesus implies—not to get praise from others (6:1), but to shine a light into the world (5:16), the way God’s sun (and love) shines on everyone regardless of who they are (5:45-48).

Jesus doesn’t describe how we should implement these ideas. He leaves the details up to us.

I recommend going back and reading the first two chapters again. As you read, ponder the fact that Mahatma Gandhi said he read the Sermon on the Mount every day. What do you think he saw in it that brought him back so often?

Lent, Day 24 — Living at Peace in the Moment

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Living at Peace in the Moment

Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
(Matthew 6:25-34 CEB)

  1. Reading this passage is like medicine. If there’s one thing that characterizes modern life, it’s worry. I can’t help but wonder at how much life has changed in two thousand years, to consider that our worries are both like and unlike theirs: famine, war, the daily struggle to stay alive. Yet the advice doesn’t change.
  2. Part of me wants to rebel against these words. “What are you talking about, Jesus? Lilies and birds!? People have bills to pay! People are chronically hungry!” But deep down, I know he’s right.
  3. Let’s pick up the thread: Jesus is talking to his students (including us). He’s told them they will be a prophetic community. He tells them he’s raising the bar on scripture, not lowering it; that we need a transformation that is heart-deep. He tells them it’s not about seeking social or religious approval. And he has just finished telling them life is not about acquiring stuff.
  4. He has just been talking about money and our relationship to it. He said a) our hearts follow our treasures, b) we need clear eyes to aid our inner light, and c) we wind up serving either God or money.
  5. But Jesus recognizes our relationship to money is not just motivated by greed. It’s motivated by fear. Jesus is not being judge-y, wagging his finger at our materialism. He knows we’re scared. We seek money because we seek security. It’s a hedge against all the bad things that could happen to us in the future.
  6. “Gentiles long for all these things.” Jesus has told us several times not to be like those who do not understand the character of God, both the Gentiles and the religious leaders. This is a reminder he is speaking to a prophetic community. “Y’all are supposed to be different!” he says, speaking to his Jewish contemporaries.
  7. “Your heavenly Father knows you need them.” Jesus seems to understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: water, food, clothing, shelter. But generally speaking, there is plenty of all of it to go around. If nobody was hoarding, there would be no poverty. “Live simply so that others may simply live” is a quote variously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and to Mother Seton.
  8. “Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own.” This is a great truth in all wisdom traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism make meditating on the present moment, on your own breath, a daily practice.
  9. This is a transformative truth. Once we realize that God is always calling us to the present moment, we have courage to do what needs to be done. It isn’t even courage, actually. It is simply the path presented to us. Those who walk it do not feel particularly brave. They simply recognize the present moment is all they really have.
  10. A people who lived this truth would be dangerous.

Lent, Day 23 — Eyesight

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:22-24 CEB).

  1. Two metaphors in this section: Eye/body and masters.
  2. The eye is the lamp of the body. Some people argue that Jesus was schooled in Eastern philosophy, and this statement certainly resonates that way. The Bhagavad Gita talks about the body as a “field” of senses, elements, and mind. It says “As the sun lights up the world, the Self dwelling in the field is the source of all light in the field. Those who, with the eye of wisdom, distinguish the field from its Knower and the way to freedom from the bondage of [attachment] attain the supreme goal” (13:33-34).
  3. Jesus just finished talking about our attachment to wealth, so when he starts talking about eyes and light and body, he seems to be saying that the way we see affects our whole being.
  4. There are two ways the light gets into us: There is the inner light of the Self, and the external light of clear seeing. If Jesus were Hindu or Buddhist, he might talk about this clear seeing as “non-attachment.” We might have a strong inner light, which can compensate for our poor perception. Or we might see clearly, but have a weak inner light. Either state is better than the one whose inner light is dim and sees poorly: “How great is the darkness!” Strive to correct your vision, Jesus says, so that your field, your body and internal world, can be full of light.
  5. Listen: First you start talking about inner light and wisdom, and next you’re doing hatha yoga and chanting. Alabama just passed a law that makes yoga legal in schools, but kids can’t say “Namaste.” It’s no wonder the Western church has such a perverse relationship to capitalism. We’ve rejected Jesus’s philosophy of light and clear seeing in favor of the God of the Invisible Hand.
  6. The second metaphor is about servant-master relationships. And I can’t hear this without hearing Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.
  7. Jesus creates a stark contrast, and presents us an either-or decision. You cannot serve both God and wealth. The word for “wealth” here is a loan-word from Hebrew, which in English was translated as “Mammon.” It’s just a colloquial word for money.
  8. To recap, Jesus has so far made three arguments for putting money it its place: Where you locate your heart and treasure, the quality of light in your body, and who you will serve. It seems like our relationship with money is important to Jesus, doesn’t it?

Lent, Day 20 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses
(Matthew 6:12-15)

  1. Jesus concludes his example prayer and resumes his sermon. I’ve included this transition so you can see today’s theme of forgiveness clearly.
  2. This is one of those places where word choice matters. In the first line, Jesus uses the Greek word here: ὀφειλέταις, opheiletais, in the phrase “forgive us our debts.” In the last line, he uses παραπτώματα, paraptomata, in the phrase “forgive others their trespasses.”
  3. There is another word for sin, ἁμαρτια, hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” I think it is interesting that Jesus doesn’t use it here at all. He uses metaphors: stumble, owe, trespass. I think the metaphors are important for correcting the way we normally think about sin and forgiveness.
  4. The last two lines are intimidating: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is God’s forgiveness really a tit-for-tat?
  5. There’s evidence that Matthew would say yes. Matthew 18:23-35 is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which is about a boss who forgives a debt of millions of dollars. The forgiven man goes out and demands repayment from another man who owes him fifty bucks. So the boss un-cancels the debt! Is Matthew saying “This is how God behaves?” Or is he saying, “This is absolutely NOT how God behaves?”
  6. More evidence: in the next chapter, Jesus will say, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Yes, it is intimidating!
  7. Theologically, I don’t think this is how God operates. But what does it do to our thinking if we prayed this way? “God, inasmuch as we forgive others their debts, forgive us.”
  8. Here’s a crazy idea: what if we are God to each other? What if my judgment and condemnation of others is reflexive, because Christ dwells in me and in them? The Bhagavad Gita says, “The Lord dwells in the hearts of all creatures” (18:61). If I cannot forgive God for creating the jerk who just cut me off in traffic, can I truly let God forgive me? If I damn him to hell, aren’t I damning myself, too?
  9. I think this is why Jesus uses “debts” and “trespasses,” instead of sin, because this section isn’t really about the nature of sin. It’s about forgiveness. And if we want to understand how God operates, we have to understand forgiveness from both sides.
  10. Because the secret is that there are not two sides at all, debt and debtor, trespasser and trespassed. There is only God extending grace through each of us to the other.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 19 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in [the heavens],
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in [the heavens].
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:7-13 NRSV)

1)    Don’t be like them. In this sermon, there are two groups of people Jesus tells his followers not to imitate: religious hypocrites and Gentiles. Jesus already showed us how hypocrites behave. They perform their religion for social approval.

2)    Jesus’s words about Gentiles are rooted in his Jewish identity, because God had chosen to reveal God’s self as a liberating, life-transforming God. Gentiles (that would be us), like the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians, lived in fear of capricious, fickle gods. If a god fell in love with a mortal, the mortal would likely get crossways with another god and get turned into a tree or bird or cow. If the gods decided they didn’t like you, you might spend seven years trying to get home (like Ulysses). If you said your child was smart or pretty, you’d better hope the gods didn’t get jealous and smite them with something. Nothing you did was ever good enough for the gods, so it was best to fly under their radar and not draw attention to yourself. If you did choose to pray, you had to convince them to hear you. “You don’t need to filibuster the Source of the Universe,” Jesus says.

3)    In contrast, God (who Jesus indicates is already present in your secret place and your innermost self) already knows what you need.

4)    There have been whole books written on this prayer, so I will not break down all of its elements. I’ll just mention a few of its big parts. First, hear how God’s will is done “in the heavens.” This is why people do astrology, because the stars and planets move according to God’s will. A star appeared to herald Jesus’s own birth, according to Matthew. “God’s will done in the heavens” is not about a mystery realm in the afterlife. People literally believed God was ordering the movements of the cosmos. This is a plea for life to be made predictable and in right relationship. It is a call for justice. (And this is why I keep pointing out that we should translate this phrase as “the heavens”.)

5)    Daily bread is a reference to manna in the Hebrew Bible. This is about teaching us to live in the moment, with what we need for today. Jesus will revisit this theme when he talks about money and worry.

6)    Debts. Debt was rampant in the first century, and it held people in poverty. Jesus uses debt forgiveness in his parables. The difference between “forgiving sins” and “forgiving debts” is that debt forgiveness is revolutionary and systemic. There is a reason predatory lending, medical debt, education debt, and climate debt are in our news so much today. I’ve chosen to use the NRSV today, because it says “debt” instead of “trespass” or “sin.”

7)    Save us from the time of trial. The Pope recently told Roman Catholics to use this phrase instead of “lead us not into temptation.” It even made the news! I think it is high time. God doesn’t tempt us with sin. Tests and trials, on the other hand, are certainly in the Hebrew Bible.

8)    I think these word changes help us hear that God’s activity is less about sin management and getting our souls into heaven, and more about God’s saving activity with us here on this planet. “Your will done on earth as in the heavens.”

There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 18 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

  1. Public prayer. Hoo, boy. Prayer in schools. Before football games. Before legislative sessions. In restaurants. At protests. In hospital waiting rooms. Which of these are acceptable? I get this question all the time.
  2. Some people use this verse as a proof-text to bash ALL forms of public prayer.
  3. In the gospel of John, when Jesus prays for Lazarus, he says this: “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me” (John 11:41-42). Jesus explicitly says he is praying so that others will overhear him. Is Jesus a hypocrite for praying in public? Is he twice a hypocrite because, in Matthew’s gospel, he says not to pray in public? This is why I believe we cannot use these verses to disallow all forms of public prayer.
  4. As with Jesus’s words on giving, the question is, “What’s going on under your persona, your mask?” Are you an actor, performing for others so that you will be thought of as an upstanding citizen? Or are you actually speaking to God and helping others relate to God?
  5. Again, Jesus switches between singular and plural forms of you. This is addressed to individuals and our need for social approval.
  6. But there are times when it is appropriate for the community to pray, as a gathered body. At those times we may appoint a spokesperson to express the needs of a community to God.
  7. The ethical question of public prayer for a legislative body, or a sporting event, is not about an individual seeking praise, or of a community of faith speaking with one voice. It’s about imposing certain beliefs on minorities. I’ve been in public spaces where the person who prayed used language I could never say “amen” to.
  8. An often-overlooked part of these verses is that God is present everywhere, even in your secret place. “Your Father who sees what you do in secret” is repeated three times in this section. This secret seeing is not like police-surveillance. It is benevolent and sympathetic. God already loves us. We don’t have to earn it.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 17 — Hypocrisy

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

Hi, friends— I know this is a trying time. I hope these Lenten devotionals continute to offer you spiritual sustenance in this time of fasting from social interaction. Please let me know if you need to talk. You can email me at dave@saintjunia.org.

Whenever you give to the poor, dont 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, thats the only reward theyll get. But when you give to the poor, dont 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. (Matthew 6:2-4)

  1. Hypocrite. It’s a word that we use casually now. We usually mean “someone who says one thing and does another.”
  2. But Jesus invented this metaphor, and it’s actually less specific. It means simply “actor.” The word hypocrite meant a theater performer, someone who plays a role.
  3. Greeks introduced theater to the world. Actors in Jesus’s day wore elaborate masks with built-in megaphones. A mask was called a persona.
  4. I think a good substitute word is “Drama Queen.” Jesus is saying lots of religious people are simply drama queens, performing for public admiration.
  5. Today, when someone donates a large sum of money to a university, they often get a building named after them. This form of honor was even more showy in the ancient world. Honor was currency. If you gave a large sum of money to an organization, you could expect a statue of yourself and your family in the garb of royalty.
  6. When Jesus says “I assure [y’all]” he uses the plural form, because he’s talking to a group. But when he illustrates particular situations, Jesus switches to the first person singular pronoun: “Whenever you (singular) give.”
  7. For the record, I don’t think it is showy for a church to talk about the good things they are doing for a community. Recently, when churches have canceled medical debt, it has been a witness both to the good they are doing and the oppressive debt of our health care system. I think this is one way the church as a group can be a “light to the world” while we, as individuals, avoid “blowing a trumpet” or tooting our own horn.
  8. Sometimes in churches it is important for people to share their own story of giving, or what giving has done in their lives. This often gets done during the “stewardship campaign,” which is unfortunate. But if we do not talk about how giving changes us, we are failing to teach each other. This is different than Jesus’ illustration of how actors call attention to a particular act of generosity.
  9. I think Jesus’ challenge to us is to examine what’s going on under our persona, under our mask. The language about our left and right hand shifts our awareness to what’s going on in our own bodies and our own selves. Is there something we are trying to cover up with our performance of piety? Some kind of insecurity?
  10. Insecure people often shame other folks for being exceptional or doing good. If I feel you are getting “too big for your britches” I may feel it necessary to “take you down a notch.” I call you out as a hypocrite because I am a hypocrite. Humility, pride, hypocrisy: Sometimes religious people wield these words as a cudgel because they are insecure. (Jesus will talk about the log in our own eye in the next chapter.)
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 16 — Shining vs. Showing Off

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Shining vs. Showing Off

Be careful that you dont 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, dont 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, thats the only reward theyll get. But when you give to the poor, dont 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.
(Matthew 6:1-4)

  1. Let’s just focus on the first two sentences today. We’ll look at the rest tomorrow, but I’m including it for context.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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].”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!