Journey Post 42, The Relevance of Jesus and the secret reward: what do you value, whom do you trust?
(The Donkey view of Christianity, part 3b, Matthew chapter 6)
Could you imagine a world in which the people think like God?
Depending on what you think God is like, that might be incredibly bad or incredibly good … or insane … or boring.
The closest I’ve come to imagining such a world is by observing and listening to Jesus. No, I didn’t live 2,000 years ago, but repeated reading of the Gospels put me into a sort of time machine that took me back there to be with him and his disciples.
His closest followers spent two or three years in his company, and even they didn’t understand it all, at least until the resurrection revealed their little faith. (One never did understand, of course.) Their privilege was great. They were apprenticed to a master from whom they learned not only to say and do what he did, but, like an apprentice in a trade today, they were learning to think like him and so to be like him.
We live out how we think. That is such an obvious truth that we don’t give it much thought.
It was obvious to Jesus that the religious leaders of his day neither thought highly of God nor trusted him. Their picture of the God they claimed to represent must have been something akin to an ogre, one whose judgment would fall on those who didn’t keep all the rules as they understood them.
Herein is a key to understanding much of Jesus’s teaching: He came not only to die on a cross but to live as a son. I’ve purposely written “son” in lower case. I firmly believe in his divine nature, but I’ve taken a lesson from the fact that his ministry was not about proving that to people. Jesus relied, instead, on his Father to open eyes to see him as he is.
I’ve written “son” to emphasize that Jesus lived out his life on earth to put God on display, to show and tell us what he is really like, to model the kind of life that the Creator intended for us human beings created in his image. That is the reason his teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount (and everywhere else) contrasts sharply with the kinds of things the Pharisees were saying.
Those who had hearts ready to listen (as Jesus challenged those who heard his parable about the sower) were drawn to Jesus; those who understood him wanted to live as he did—because his very life drew people to God.
Whether or not you agree that Jesus is the Son of God, you should agree with the premise of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that Jesus spent the years before the cross teaching his followers to see life and people from the perspective of his heavenly Father, the one he taught he followers to call “Abba.”
To recast that first line more concretely: Could you imagine a world in which people think like Jesus? That might look like people living out the values in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus never promised that could be easy; it’s frankly impossible without an ongoing dependence upon God. Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised his followers just before he went to the cross, there is nothing easy about living the Christian life, not if you’re honest. Any “improvement” (i.e., living more like Jesus) does not come instantaneously. It’s a process. In my case, a long zigzag journey.
The Bible doesn’t hide the warts that remain in the people who follow God. The disciples, for example, were close to understanding who Jesus is, yet they still fled when the soldiers came to the garden and Peter still denied even knowing him. Most people who become Christians experience a long process of difficult change, filled with struggle and heartache. I don’t know any genuine Christian who think that life is spent in a thorn-free rose garden.
As we get into what Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 6, stay mindful of the religious leaders. The Beatitudes may have seemed innocuous enough to the Pharisees, but when Jesus began to say, “you’ve heard it said … but I tell you…,” he was directly challenging their authority. They may have missed what else Jesus was saying, but they got the challenge, and they began a long, slow burn that would lead them to demand the crucifixion. Jesus taught with an authority they didn’t have: the Pharisees and other rabbis would cite learned rabbinical authorities to back up what they told people to do.
The part they missed was that Jesus was displaying to them what God is really like and how he thinks. Chapter 6 is about two closely related topics: what you treasure, or value, and whom you trust.
Jesus starts with a warning not to do good works (“righteousness”) in order to be seen by others—to get their kudos. What religious legalists didn’t get was that any reward for what they did had already been received in those kudos.
You might find it hard to believe that anyone would actually use a trumpet to call attention to their giving, but rich people then commonly did such things. We may be a bit more subtle today, but have you noticed the pervasiveness of donor plaques? They’re ubiquitous. They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But God looks at the motive; he knows the heart (and doesn’t need the plaque).
What Jesus says in regard to this is one of the most important statements in the entire sermon: “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” We want our kudos now: God has other ideas.
There are so many things we do to call attention to ourselves, to get credit and admiration. And it’s not even necessary that others know exactly what we’ve done. We just sometimes like to think that we’re better than others because we’ve done something they didn’t. I’ve been there, done that, even envied a plaque or two.
We don’t hear much about fasting today, except perhaps when someone is dieting. However, there are churches that invite their people to fast for particular reasons. Fasting in Scripture was generally done as an indication (to God) of earnestness and desire that he work in some way. I fear that some commit to fasting simply because they want their name seen on the list (i.e., the plaque).
If you grew up in church, you’ve likely sat in a prayer meeting where some saint droned on and on, invoking a mini theological tome of titles and attributes of God while praying a laundry list of spiritual and physical needs for every imaginable person in the congregation. It’s so easy to judge/condemn such people. But we can’t know that person’s heart: God, who does know, may be listening in with the biggest smile ever … even taking notes!
I can’t tell you, however, how often I’ve prayed in public, making sure to sound very humble so you would know how spiritual I am (Michelle would have other ideas, of course).
What we call “The Lord’s Prayer” was an example prayer that Jesus gave his apprentices, one which I’m sure he never intended to be recited without thought as part of a weekly liturgy. This is not to say that a memorized prayer cannot constitute communion with God. He looks at the heart.
I grew up saying the prayer every Sunday, having no idea that “Father” was not just the mandatory way to start. Jesus taught his disciples to approach God as “Father,” which went against generally accepted practice. “Father” expresses intimate relationship—a rather radical idea. “Father”—think of it in its ideal sense—expresses trust and value, at least it’s supposed to. Can you imagine little John-John calling out to JFK: “O, Mr. President, O Leader of the Free World, hear my prayer”? No, a simple “daddy!” suffices.
I want to call your attention to the prayer’s content, to think about what each line is really expressing. “Name” expresses nature and reputation. “Kingdom come”? “The kingdom is at hand!” said Jesus, and he will return one day. The will of God: What might it be like for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven? And, “daily bread”: Despite poverty, Americans are incredibly rich. Maybe we could be the answer to that prayer.
“Forgive as we forgive”? There is a close relationship between mercy and forgiveness. That line in the prayer assumes that we do give mercy—and recognize that we are in great need of it ourselves—all the time. Mercy comes before forgiveness. The whole prayer is an acknowledgement of our dependence on God, like those who are “poor in spirit.”
“Deliver us from evil.” You may or may not believe in a personal devil. But there is enough temptation in this world designed to fit any particular character flaw. The self that inhabits our psyche is not simply a “flaw”—it’s the very essence of what’s referred to as the “sin nature.” One of the chief outlets for this nature is not forgiving those who have wronged us (an undoubted evil). Jesus said that if we don’t forgive, neither will God forgive us. I don’t have a neatly boxed answer to the question that raises, but if we are not forgiving, it’s likely we don’t know what it is to be forgiven in the first place.
What is “treasure in heaven”? What we treasure is where our heart will be, a major theme of the sermon. What we treasure can be “money”—or whatever we chase after in life—any personal idol. An idol traces back to our own self (which we promote and protect). If our treasure is in God, then we can afford to be generous. This is what’s behind Jesus’s use of the “eye” as the “lamp of the body.” The eye, as with the heart, reveals the health of the inner life. A good eye is pure and giving to others.
Dealing with anxiety generally comes down to a question of what or whom you trust. Notice how Jesus answers the question of worry. He isn’t saying that God will pour pennies from heaven or Amazon boxes full of stuff. He never says we don’t need to work hard or provide for our families. His answer is to make us think about how much we are valued by the Father—who made us in his own image.
Knowing that we are valued by him is knowing that we are loved by him. Knowing his love, knowing how valued I am by him, changed the direction of my our heart, from chasing after my own need for love and value to chasing after him to know him more. So, what does it mean to seek his kingdom? God is interested in us, values us, and sees our hearts. So the kingdom is not a matter of doing x-amount of good deeds, or not doing certain x-rated things, or being in constant attendance at church, or anything else that is often associated with what Christians do or not do.
If you were to sit down and write a summary or the main points of Jesus’s teaching in the sermon, you just might find yourself describing what it means to love in a way that is not centered on self. When you know you are loved, you love in return; in this case, you love the Father and seek after what he wants. And if your prayer is that God’s will be done on earth, you’ll begin to have some idea of what that looks like. This is not being a religious freak or fanatic. This is being what we were intended to be from the beginning.