Sunday, March 1, 2015

Christian PDAs

Christian PDAs

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-18 (KJV)

1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

I had been over the weekend in Houston, was tired, and my eyes were heavy as soon as I took my seat on the airplane. However, a couple - an older man and a younger woman - took seats a couple of rows ahead. I kept fighting to keep my eyes open because the couple were so interesting. They were in lust, and maybe drunk, and pretty soon their physical involvement became both inappropriate and embarrassing. The stewardess came several times to ask them to stop but to no avail. It was so bad that they were detained on the plane when we landed.

What do you think about PDAs - public displays of affection? They can be natural and sincere, even if inappropriate. But other times you get the impression that at least part of what the couple want is for people to notice what they are doing.

Jesus challenges us about our public displays of spirituality. Do we do what we do for God or to impress others?

1. The Principle

The saying in verse one gives us the principle which guides the rest of what Jesus says in these 18 verses. In our King James version it reads, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” However, all modern translations say, “Beware of doing your acts of righteousness before other people.” The exact wording varies but in all of them Jesus talks about “righteousness” not “almsgiving.” The reason for this change is that best manuscripts have the Greek word for righteousness in verse one.

The word “righteousness” means “right-ness.” The nature of God is righteous, and all of God’s acts are righteous. We also can have righteousness. Often the word refers to our “justification” or our righteous standing before God. This righteousness is not found in us, but in Christ. It is not anything we are or anything we do. When we put our faith in Christ, God declares us righteous, counting Christ’s righteousness as ours.

But there are other aspects of righteousness for believers. We do righteous deeds that flow from faith in Christ. We do righteous deeds when we act out of love for God and our neighbor, when we obey the Ten Commandments, when we do good works.

But here Jesus is talking about a particular kind of righteous deeds - righteous acts that involve our devotion to God that are done in public and private acts of worship. Then he goes on to give us a warning about three in particular - almsgiving in verses 2 - 4, praying in verses 3 - 15, and fasting in verses 16 - 18.

He tells us to take heed or be careful when we do these things because there is a danger. We can do these things “before men, to be seen of them.”

Why do we do the things we do? Do we do them for God? Or do we do them to be seen by others who will take note of what we do and praise us for it? When we do these things, are we un-self-conscious or are we spectators watching ourselves and hoping others will, too? Jesus tells us to be careful about our motives.

He also warns us of the consequence of doing these righteous acts to be seen and congratulated by others. If we do that, their recognition will be our reward. We will forfeit the approval and reward of our Father in heaven. If we seek and get the praise from others, we will not have praise from the Father in heaven for whom we claim we are doing these acts of righteousness.

2. The Practices

Jesus applies the principle of doing acts of righteousness, not to be noticed by other people but for God, to three practices.

a. Almsgiving

For the Jews almsgiving was a very important religious duty. Alms were given to help the poor, and helping the poor was part an expression of their religious devotion. Giving for us too, as Christians, is an act of worship which is why we include giving in the liturgy. Part of our regular giving is almsgiving, for the gifts are used to help when needs arise within the congregation. We also encourage specific almsgiving above regular giving to support various needs. Right now we have our mite boxes which we can fill with change and cash or checks so that we as Anglicans can help those who live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Jesus points out a practice of some Jews when they were taking their alms to the synagogue. They would hire a band to go ahead of them so that people would notice them and say, “There goes brother Jacob taking his alms to the synagogue. What a good man he is! Thank you, brother Jacob for your generosity! ” We don’t know if Jesus described a real practice of having trumpets accompany them to the synagogue or whether he was using hyperbole to point out how important it was to these givers to be noticed.

What Jesus is clear about is that such givers are hypocrites. The word “hypocrite” comes from the world of Greek theater. It means “actor,” a person who assumes a character and plays a role. Greek actors often wore masks to cover their faces. They were one thing according to the mask, another behind the mask. Those Jews who called attention to their almsgiving were playing a role, wanting others to notice and applaud, while their hearts were not generous. They got the reward they wanted - recognition and praise from others - but they did not please God.

Jesus says to us, his disciples, “When you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” If you put your offering in the plate with your right hand, make sure your left hand doesn’t see what your right hand does. That is not literally possible, but Jesus’ point is, “Don’t dwell on your giving. Don’t go over it in your mind. Be as unconscious of what you are doing as possible. Forget about it as soon as possible.” Otherwise you might start congratulating yourself. And when you do that, you are no longer giving for the sake of God and others. “Do your giving in secret.” If you’re really doing it for God, you don’t need anyone else to know what you are doing. God sees what you do in secret; he knows when you give and how much. At the right time he will acknowledge and reward the giving you do because you love him and others.

b. Praying

Next Jesus turns to prayer, which for us, as it was for the Jews, is essential for our worship and our whole relationship with God. In prayer we adore and thank God, confess our sins, and ask for God to bless us and others.

Jesus’s warnings about prayer focus on both the hypocrites and the pagans.

Hypocritical Jews love to pray standing on the street corners and in the synagogues. They want to be noticed. They are seeking the attention of other people. They want others to say, “Look there at brother Joshua. He is such a godly man. He must love God very much. Look at him praying.” Again those who pray in order to impress and get praise have their reward immediately in the recognition they get.

Jesus tells us to go into our closets, shut the doors, and to pray to the Father who is in secret. His hearing of us is not based on other’s hearing us. Jesus went off by himself without his disciples to pray to his Father. At the moment of greatest crisis, as he wrestled with the will of God in the Garden of Gethsemane, he left even those closest to him, Peter, James, and John, and opened his heart to his Father in private. If we are really praying to God, we don’t need others to know that we are praying.

It’s clear that Jesus is not telling us not ever to pray in public as we do in worship. Even the Lord’s Prayer assumes we will pray in the presence of others, for we use the plural pronoun “our.” What Jesus is warning us against is wanting others to notice and honor us for our prayers - the words we say and the fervency with which we offer them. We should pray, as we should give, as unselfconsciously as possible, praying to God not for man to notice.

Pagans pray to get God’s attention. They think that they will get God’s attention by repetition of his name and multiplication of words. When Elijah met the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel to find out whether the LORD or Baal was God, the pagan prophets called out, “O Baal, answer us!” from morning till noon. But, there was no response, so when noon passed they started cutting themselves and loudly crying to Baal, and continued on well into the afternoon.

Jesus, says, “God does not hear you because you keep repeating his name or because you pile up many words. Just address him as Father and say what you have to say.” Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer to be prayed and as a model to teach us about prayer. We address God, “Our Father” and then there six concise and clear requests - three about God, that his name may be hallowed, his kingdom may come, and his will be done; and then three about us, that our daily needs may be met, that our sins may be forgiven, and that we may be either kept from temptation or protected against evil in temptation. 

c. Fasting

The third religious practice Jesus calls our attention to is fasting. Fasting is abstaining from food. Fasts can be partial or total, for a brief time or a more extended time. In the Old Testament there was only one prescribed day of fasting, the Day of Atonement. However, that did not mean that individuals could not fast at other times or that the nation could not be called to fast to repent and seek God’s favor.

There is no record of Jesus having fasted, though we can assume he did on the Day of Atonement. Nor is there any record of his disciples fasting. He was asked on one occasion why John the Baptist’s disciples fasted and his did not, and Jesus said, “It’s not appropriate to fast while the bridegroom is still present.” On the other hand, the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray told God, “I fast twice a week.” There does not seem to be an emphasis on fasting in the life of the New Testament churches. But the fact that Jesus says, “When you fast,” makes clear that he expects there to be times when his disciples will fast.

His concern is with how we go about fasting when we do. Again he warns us not to be like the hypocrites. Their concern, as with almsgiving and prayer, is the people will notice what they are doing. When they fasted, they changed their daily routines. They did not wash their faces or put oil their heads. We might say that they did not shower and shave, or they did not brush their hair and put on make-up. Rather they looked gloomy and did things like pour ashes over their heads. They put on a special fasting look so that people would look at them and know they were fasting. They wanted people to say, “Look at brother, Andrew, how sad he is, and how he doesn’t even pay attention to how he looks. He must be fasting and afflicting himself before God. He must be very devoted to God!”

Jesus says to us, “Don’t call attention to yourself when you fast. If you are going to fast, go about your daily life as you would if you were not fasting. Look cheerful. Do the usual preparations for going out in public.” If you are fasting to deny yourself, to repent of your sins, and to seek God for his blessings, let that be between you and God. He will know that you’re fasting and why. That’s all that matters. Let God take care of rewarding you in his time and way.

3. The Paternal

If we stopped where we are now, we might turn this into a piece of legalistic teaching about how we practice Christianity. Don’t be like the hypocrites and pagans when you give, pray, and fast. Be better than they were. Be a good Christian.

But that misses what Jesus is saying. There is a word that we might miss that Jesus uses nine times and each time with the personal possessive pronoun. The word is Father, your Father, our Father.

Father is a word that belongs to a personal relationship, the relationship between a son or daughter and a father. The word is not as formal as it may sound in our ears, particularly our southern ears. Jesus spoke not Greek but Aramaic, and the Aramaic word for father is Abba. Abba is a word used by a child to speak to his father. When children are learning to talk they often repeat a syllable. Wawa is water. Mama is mother. Dada is father. In Aramaic abba is father.

When the father-child relationship is healthy, the child feels secure. He is confident his father loves him and will take care of him. When the child is in trouble, he does not call out, “Mr. Jones, help me,” but, “Dad, I need you. Help me.”

The problem for both the hypocrites and the pagans was that they did not know God as Father.

The hypocrites needed affirmation from others because they were not confident of affirmation from God. They put on performances hoping others would notice them and praise them. They were not secure in father-child relationship. They needed to get the attaboys from others who saw their acts of devotion, because they did not sense that God saw and was pleased with them. For them, religion was performance - both an act to be put on and a list of things to do to earn God’s favor.

The pagans needed to get the attention of an inattentive God and to try to wrest what they needed from an unwilling God. So they called out his name over and over to get try to get his attention and repeated words over and over again to try to get him to give them what they needed. They did not know God as a loving and caring Father.

The problem we have is that the hypocrites’ and pagans’ way of relating to God are natural to us and deeply ingrained in us. Instead of giving, praying, and fasting confident of our Father’s attention and approval we try to perform to get his approval and we look to others to approve us since we don’t sense that God notices and approves. Instead of living confident of God’s love and care we think of him as a distant and stingy God from whom we must try to wrangle a blessing here and there.

What’s the cure for this? It is to know God as our Father in Jesus Christ. God’s approval is not earned by our performance but by Christ’s performance for us. We obtain God’s blessings not by how many words we say in prayer but by coming to him in Jesus' name. When we are confident in God’s love because of what Christ has done for us, then we won’t need to do our acts of righteousness before men to be seen of them. When we are confident of God’s generosity that he gave us Christ, then we can approach him as our Father who loves and cares.

Here at the Table of our Lord, we focus not on ourselves but on Christ, not on what we have to give him but what he freely gives us. In Christ we know God Almighty as our heavenly Father who of his tender mercy gave Christ to suffer upon the cross for our redemption.

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