Scripture: Matthew 6:1–8, 16–21
You would think that five weeks would be enough to cover three chapters of Matthew. Sure, you would have to skip a couple of sections, but you could cover most of the big stuff, right? Just so you get a sense of how profound and densely packed the Sermon on the Mount is, in the half a chapter between last week’s Beatitudes and this week’s reading, we are skipping:
- Jesus’ teaching on not abolishing the law and the prophets.
- His words on anger, on tearing out your eye when it causes you to lust, and his teaching on divorce.
- We are missing “let your yes be yes,” his teaching on “an eye for an eye,” on going the “second mile.”
- And the end of the chapter, which ends with the challenge, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So, not much, right? The sage on the mountain teaches us with such depths, it will take a lifetime to learn it all. And as we open Chapter 6, we begin a section in which Jesus challenges us on how we live and practice our faith.
Matthew 6.1–8, 16–21
1‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7‘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. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
16‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“You are such a hypocrite!” The battle had been brewing for some time. Two employees at the bank sat with their desks facing each other. They had the same name, but very different opinions about the world.
On one side was “Aaron with an A,” a 50-something long-time employee with the bank. He was a deacon at his church, and wore his faith on his sleeve. You could always spot a church bulletin on his desk. Bible verses posted in his cubicle.
Across from him sat “Erin with an E,” a 20-something fast riser in the bank system. She was smart, quick-witted, and hated the institutional church. She had been burned by some bad experiences in her church because of her sexual identity, and found herself drawn toward others with similar experiences. You could tell the tension was rising between the two, and one day, when Erin with an E saw Aaron with an A reading his Bible over his lunch break, she lost it…
“You are such a hypocrite! How can you belong to an organization that has abused people like me for thousands of years? Ghandi was right all those years ago…Jesus is great, but it’s his followers I can’t stand! I mean, look at the hypocrisy of the church:
- You say you worship a God who created the earth, but you all say climate change is a hoax and make jokes about global warming whenever the temperature goes below freezing.
- You put on your fancy billboards that everyone is welcome at your churches, but if you don’t have the right clothes or the right car or the right paycheck, you are always a second-class citizen. I know some of the accounts you have with businesses that are unethical, and you do, too, but what really matters is the money!
- You talk about how much time you give to your church service to its people, how caring you are. But I hear the way you talk to your wife on the phone. To your kids. It’s all a show.
- You say you worship a God of love, but when I announce who it is that I have fallen in love with, I see your looks of judgment. I overhear you talking about me and my wife in the work room.
You, and for that matter the whole institutional church, is so hypocritical!”
Who did you find yourselves identifying with more strongly in that story? Aaron with an A or Erin with an E? There is probably something inside those of us inside the church that get a little defensive when someone complains about it. Get a little grumpy with folks like Erin with an E. But here’s the news that may be tough for us to swallow: it looks she is in pretty good company!
A close reading of Matthew 6 suggests that Jesus was equally frustrated with the good religious folks of his day. Throughout today’s passage, we see him take aim at those who practiced their faith, and some of their most foundational religious practices. Almsgiving, or giving to the poor. Prayer: talking to God. And fasting: giving up something, like food, as a way to grow in our faith. But what did he say to those good church folks: “don’t be such a hypocrite!”
The passage has a pattern of three different practices, with the same three-part formula for each:
1. “When you ______” (and he names a religious practice, either almsgiving, or saying a prayer to God, or fasting)
2. “Don’t do it this way….” (and he gives a negative example of how NOT to do it)
In these negative examples is where he names the ever-present hypocrites. The word for hypocrite is the Greek word for a stage actor, someone pretending to be someone they are not. Jesus is drawing a parallel with religious folks who in essence wear a mask to make people think that they are holy or righteous, but in their hearts they are just doing it to garner attention. Hypocrites are the ones who loudly trumpet it whenever they give in worship. They are the ones who stand up publicly to show off their prayers. They are the ones who tell everyone how hard their life is when they choose to fast.
And, truth be told, sometimes it is folks like Erin with an E who can best expose our hypocrisy. Most of you have probably heard the phrase “Spiritual but not Religious.” It is a label or a descriptor for folks who find value in a relationship with God, but struggle with some of the “stuff” that comes with an organized or institutional Church. Maybe they have been hurt by the Church. Or maybe they just don’t see the point. And maybe, like Jesus, they have a prophetic eye on some of the ways that we as church folks need to have our hypocrisy pointed out.
And, like Aaron with an A, we might get defensive, but it is Jesus who points out the need and the wisdom of asking where we might cross the line between faithful, personal practices of faith, and something done because it is socially acceptable, or garners us brownie points with our friends and social network. Are there masks that we wear, in order to make others think that we are more religious than we are? More perfect than the truth? More holy than we actually feel inside. Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t do anything in our walk of faith that others can see, but is pushing us to ask how much we try and get others to see. Are there times when we find ourselves telling others how many hours we helped out at Family Promise last week? Or do we trumpet how much people love it when we share in worship? Do we proclaim how much time we spent on Bible study, or how many weeks we went to church? What masks do we wear so that others know how holy we are?
Here’s where I am living on this, this week. Many of you know that during my sabbatical, I began taking a picture six times a day, as a moment-in-time prayer to God. And then, I post that picture to Instagram. But today’s passage reminds me to ask, once again, how often I take a picture that I think people will like. Am I cultivating my social image and wearing a mask? It’s just one of the many ways that I keep asking myself, “where is my hypocrisy?”
Have you ever been surfing on the Internet, and you see an article that says, “Don’t do this. Do this instead! You don’t need to exercise or eat healthy or take care of your body. Do this instead!” A word to the wise: don’t click on it! Even if the guy in the picture is wearing a white lab coat, this is not a medically-approved thing. This is someone trying to sell you on some quick-diet or magical weight loss fad.
But in Matthew 6, it’s actually true! That’s the third part of this three-part formula: “When you ______, don’t do this. Do this instead.” In each faith practice, Jesus gives a positive example. how you ARE supposed to conduct such a practice. “Do this instead.”
- When you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
- When you pray, go into your tameion, translated as closet or pantry or some windowless room where no one can see what you are doing or hear what you are saying.
- When you fast, don’t tell everyone about it! Try your best to look as normal as possible. Wash your face. Clean your hair.
- These practices are meant to impact your personal walk of faith, not score you points with your community or your friends.
This is where Jesus differs from some folks, who only have critiques and complaints about the Church. He actually has a better way! In fact, he has been naming this better way the whole sermon! His message here in Chapter 6 is part and parcel with the Beatitudes: “If you are going to live this life—a life of peacemaking and meekness and righteousness—you aren’t going to necessarily make a lot of friends. In fact, if you are doing what you are doing to impress them, you probably aren’t doing it right. You aren’t really living the ethic that I am teaching you. Let go of the need to impress, the need to gain prestige points, the need to ‘mask up’ every time you hang out with religious friends.” Jesus is telling them “Don’t do this…do this instead. Make peace. Be humble. Hunger and thirst for righteousness.” There is a better way.
How many of you have seen the movie Don’t Look Up? It was on the Oscar Best Picture list a couple of years ago, and it is a thought-provoking, but snarky and off-color, caricature of climate-change deniers. It is an interesting look at why we believe what we believe and who we trust and how sometimes political and entertainment figures mean more than actual facts.
But near the end of the movie, it becomes a tale of two prayers. Offered by two very different characters.
One prayer is offered by a political stooge, someone clearly driven by consumerism and greed. He offers his prayer in a very public and Pharisaical way. But his prayer, not even addressed to God, is about how much he likes all his stuff and he hopes nothing happens to it.
But then a second prayer is offered by a quirky, skater-dude, who would probably best be described as “spiritual but not religious.” His prayer is offered in a quiet, private setting, amongst friends. And it is one of the most beautiful and theologically astute examples of prayer that I have seen in a movie in a long time. In fact, I would like to read it for you…
Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for Your grace tonight, despite our pride. Your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for Your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in Your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.
Quiet. Humble. Honest. The mask is off, and the prayer is genuine:
Do this instead.
Right in the middle of this teaching of “don’t do this…”, Jesus gives us this beautiful example of “do this instead”: The Lord’s Prayer. Of course, in the moment, it wasn’t anything official and printed up on the screen for them to read. It was simply a way of Jesus to tell them “do this instead.” When we read the Lord’s Prayer in this context, we see that how it offers this counter-order experience.
- Instead of praying for enough stuff to impress your friends, pray for enough. Daily bread.
- Instead of praying for the kingdoms and empires of this world, pray for God’s kingdom to come.
- Instead of praying for your enemies to be squashed under your boot, pray for forgiveness and help forgiving others.
- The whole thing is a prayer of “instead.”
Let’s spend a few moments with the Lord’s Prayer. Say it out loud. Pause on a word or phrase, as it moves you. It’s OK if you stumble over a word or two. Fine if your mind wanders and you have to bring it back. Today, let’s take the masks off together and say the prayer our Lord taught us.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.
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