Monday, January 30, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (I), Week 5: On the Mosaic Law - Relationship with God (Matt 6:5-7:6)

As Jesus continues His teachings on the Mosaic Law, He now enters into a discussion about how one relates to God. What is the relationship between the individual and the Father?

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:5-15, ESV)

Prayer has become a funny thing among Christians. Like too many things, it is a battleground between denominations. Some see prayer a lot differently today than those in the first century appeared to see it. Perhaps that will be a future post. But as for today, there are several fascinating things that Jesus says here about prayer.

Before we begin, it is important that we understand the context of first-century Judaic prayer. Formal prayer time was held three times each day—morning, afternoon, and evening. During this time, prayer was often done in groupings of ten men, and public prayer was quite common. So when Jesus talks about prayer we must keep in mind that prayer was an integral, public part of their lives—and generally speaking it involved a recitation of psalms and/or an inviting of God’s blessing on the individual or the world.

That said, let us see what Jesus had to say to His listeners about prayer.

First, He says that prayer is a private thing. When He says about those who pray to gain attention, “they have received their reward,” He is implicitly saying that they will receive no answer to their prayer, because they did so with the wrong reason. If their prayer was motivated even a little bit by a desire to receive attention from others for their holiness, then said attention is the reward they receive—they are not rewarded with God interacting in their prayer life. Instead, Jesus recommends a private, quiet, secretive prayer life: a time where the temptation to impress others is non-existent. Now this is not to be taken as a new Law; after Jesus’ death, we see Peter and John walking to the Temple at prayer time to have their morning prayers. So do not think Jesus is abolishing praying in public as a strict rule. Instead, He is attacking the meaning behind the prayer—why are you praying? If you are standing on street corners to pray and preach, then you are primarily focusing on gaining attention for yourself—and therefore, you have received your reward and God needs do nothing for you.

Second, He also attacks the Gentile mode of praying. Jewish prayers tended to follow a sort of liturgy, and to be heavily based in the psalms and traditional blessings. On the other hand, Gentile prayers were poetic and oratorical, completely non-liturgical. Jesus also makes a point to decry the vanity of praying beautiful, lovely prayers to impress those around you. Again, then primary focus is upon the purpose of the prayer—if you are trying to weave words together to impress or motivate others, then that will be the entire result of your prayer; God will not get involved.

Jesus then gives us the Lord’s Prayer, or “Our Father”, as an example of how He prays.

People tend to fall into two opposite errors when dealing with the Lord’s Prayer. Some use it as a specific formula—I must pray these words, in this precise order, many times over. Having been raised Catholic, I cannot help but remember time with the rosary, publicly praying and doing so with mindless repetition of the Our Father over and over, as though it were a spell or incantation where the words had value in and of themselves. Yet on the other hand, I have been a part of some Baptist churches which made such a big deal about not being ‘vain and repetitious’ with their prayer life that none could even recite the Lord’s Prayer!

As usual, true value lies between these extremes. Jesus gave us this model prayer, and it has been taught as a part of childhood Christian education for two thousand years; to abandon it now is equally as wrong as to elevate it to an incantation. Instead, we should all know the Lord’s Prayer; it probably wouldn’t hurt to pray it routinely or even daily to focus our prayer life; but also it must be remembered always that it is a model—not an incantation—meant to teach us how to pray, not to replace all of our prayers “from the heart”.

So, what does Jesus teach us in the Lord’s Prayer? There are five primary statements that Jesus makes in this prayer: He (1) blesses God’s name and calls it holy; (2) supports God’s will being done on earth and heaven; (3) requests daily provisions; (4) requests forgiveness for our sins; and (5) requests protection from evil. This is what Jesus said prayer is supposed to be about. Ask for God’s will to be done in your life and those around you, ask for Him to forgive your sins, and ask Him to protect you from evil.

Notice that when Jesus prays about His daily life, there is not a lot of detail here. He does not spend hours pouring over lists of prayer requests—indeed, Jesus specifically says in verse 8 that God already knows what you need before you ask Him; other places in the New Testament confirm the same, saying that the Holy Spirit within you intercedes with prayers on your behalf constantly. Jesus says that a simple request for today’s needs is sufficient.

Far too often do Christians miss this. They take the statement that “You have not because you ask not” to an extreme. I have seen Christian women who blamed their own poor prayer lives for the reason that their husbands or children were not saved; I have seen people for whom prayer is full of anxiety because they must do it right, and frequently enough. Please stop! God knows what you need and hears your spirit crying out. That is not what prayer is about, so you need not worry about naming everything on the list!

The bulk of the point of prayer certainly seems to be the last two requests—forgive our sins as we forgive others, and protect us from evil. People are very uncomfortable with what Jesus says about forgiveness, but He repeats Himself for clarity: both in verses 12 and 14-15, He specifically says that how you forgive others is how God will forgive you. We Christians don’t like to hear that, because we like to hold a grudge! But the reality is, as C.S. Lewis once said, how well we forgive seems to be the key point around which the entire heart of Christianity turns. Jesus is very clear here that we can ask God to forgive us only to the extent that we have forgiven others, and that if we do not have forgiving hearts He will not forgive us!

From a practical standpoint, I think where I see this need the most is in our general attitudes toward life. If, as Jesus will later say, you are focused primarily upon loving God and loving others, then this is not much of an issue; if you and your pride are third place in the priorities, then you cannot hold a grudge against the person who wronged you. You forgive them and move on with your life—for you want God to forgive you as well. You forgive your husband for his laziness around the house, because you want God to forgive you for your own laziness in your spiritual life; you forgive the mean boss, because you want God to forgive you for your meanness; you forgive the selfish driver who cut you off, because you want God to forgive your selfishness.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6:16-18, ESV)

With fasting, we see almost precisely the same thing. Now of course a fast is an abstinence from food or drink, and can be done in diverse ways. It can be restraint for a period of time, such as Lent or a season of life where you wish to focus spiritually; it can be a long-term abstinence from something like alcohol or haircuts or whatever (think of the Nazrene periods of some Jewish men’s lives); or it could be lifelong monastic virtues like the Essenes demonstrated.

On a standard “fasting” day in Judaism, where everyone fasted, the fast looked something like this: no food at all during daylight hours; nothing but water to drink all day; a small piece of bread is allowed in the morning, before the sun rises.

Regardless of how the fast occurs, Jesus here says that it is just like prayer—do it quietly, without telling anyone about it, so that you can be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

And please, Christians: if you are trying to lose weight, call it a diet. It isn’t a fast. The fast is about your spirit, not your waistline.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So 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 great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt 6:19-34, ESV)

This section is a fascinating one when taken all together. Generally people break this up into three topics—versus 19-25, 26-33, and verse 34. This is wrong! Note that verse 26 starts with, “Therefore”, as does verse 34. This ties the entire section together, which puts a slightly different spin on it.

This section deals with wealth and greed. Before I get to the Scripture, I would like to say a few words for context. Today, in a free market economy, wealth and greed do not necessarily always go together. Some people become wealthy due to some brilliant invention (e.g., Bill Gates); others by inheritance (e.g., the Walton family). And of course, many become wealthy through greed (e.g., Wall Street, Enron, etc.)

But in the ancient world, you generally could not have one or the other. Unless you were born into a wealthy family, the only way you could become wealthy was to be greedy. The ancient world, you see, was not a free-market international economy; in fact, it wasn’t even a free market nationalistic economy. Economies in pre-industrial societies were naturally almost entirely local. There was only so much water to go around; there was only so much wine; there was only so much food. This is what is called a “limited goods society”. So every person naturally sees themselves as having a fair share (think of the Jews and the manna falling from heaven). Everyone is expected to take what they need and share the rest.

So a wealthy person, then, generally gets there by greed—he is taking what belongs to someone else. This is a horrible affront in a limited goods society: each should take only that which they directly earned. This is one of the reasons the Bible strictly forbids loaning money at interest: the loaner is doing nothing to earn the money, and thus has no right to expect more back than he loaned.

Think of the stock market today, for example—one person makes money only if someone else loses money or value. That is an example of what the ancients considered greed: profiting by getting more than your fair share of things. Oh, sure, the person “earns” it in a manner of speaking: they are good at their jobs, or have a good stock tip, or take risks at the right times, or whatever. But it is still greed…it is a desire to get away with something. It is living large on the company expense card because you can; it is hard-ball negotiating with your boss for a raise above the level of salary you agreed originally to take. These are the kind of things that Jesus’ listeners would have considered greedy—and sadly, many (most?) of us in modern America fall into this category.

In this passage, Jesus continues His discussion on our relationship to God by saying that we all must choose whether we serve God or “mammon”. Mammon was the Sumerian god of wealth, and his name was synonymous among the Jews with greed.

So here, Jesus is telling us that those who live greedily and lust for money find it impossible to properly relate to God. As we discussed last week, we are all immortals—so to spend your time hoarding and lusting for money (which can help you only in this temporary world) shows a profound mis-priority in one’s attitude toward God.

Jesus uses an analogy here of a “bad eye”—that is, blindness—which makes one’s view of the world dark. What He is saying is that greed is like spiritual blindness: you become so obsessed with money that you cannot properly connect with God.

I find it interesting that this was not included in last week’s passage, but in the midst of Jesus’ teachings on relationship to God. Greediness is wrong not because it hurts others, but because it destroys the fabric of your spiritual relationship.

What many Christians miss is that the passage doesn’t end in verse 25, but continues on. When Jesus speaks about not being anxious, He is still talking about money! Yet so many Christians take verse 26, rip it out of its context, and say, “See? You shouldn’t be depressed about _____! Jesus said don’t worry!” What poor analysis of Scripture!

What Jesus is clearly saying in this passage, in context, is this:
• Focus your efforts on building eternal treasure rather than earthly treasure, because:
• Greed destroys your relationship with God. As a result:
• Stop worrying about having a bank account to pay for future food and clothing and drink. God knows you need them and will take care of them.
• Let tomorrow take care of itself—you just worry about today.

Read the entire thing in context and you clearly see that Jesus is not at all talking about depression or mental health or anxiety. He is clearly discussing greed for the entire thing. He is saying in verses 26-34 that you need not set aside money against future concerns such as clothing or food, for God knows your needs and will take care of you. Instead, spend your money today (on Godly things, of course!)

This is an important thing for us to remember in this time of economic downturn. Our tendency is to build a big bank account for security. My wife keeps me honest about being freely generous, but even so I begin to get nervous if I do not have at least 3 months net salary in the bank…how ridiculous! Jesus says not to worry about next month’s rent, God will take care of you as He sees fit. So instead of worrying about money, be free to worship God rather than greedily seeking financial security.

Notice how this echoes Jesus’ prayer in the “Our Father”—“give us today our daily bread”. Just ask for today’s security; let tomorrow take care of itself. Then you are free to focus on God today, instead of always planning for tomorrow’s events.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log 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 brother's eye. Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Mt 7:1-6, ESV)

In this final statement on the relationship between man and God, Jesus speaks about an attitude of judgmentalism. He previously spoke (as we discussed last week) that we will be forgiven proportionally to how we forgive others; here we see the same concept at play.

Here, Jesus tells us that if we judge others, we will be judged. The measuring cup that you use to decide the sinfulness of your neighbor is the same cup that God will use against you. To judge others is to pronounce yourself clean, Jesus says—which is hypocritical.

Many people say, “I’m not being judgmental! But some things are still sins and need to be called out.” Really? Can you show me that in Jesus’ words? Or in Paul’s? Jesus doesn’t say, “Judge not…unless it’s something really bad.” His command is simple and plain: do not judge other people.

When people say, “I hate the sin but love the sinner”…I tend to roll my eyes. This is not a realistic situation. The minute you judge someone else’s behavior as being bad, you put yourself between God and man. Leave the judgment up to the Holy Spirit—that is His job, after all. Your job is to love and forgive.

Let me put this in very practical terms. Follow Jesus’ logic from last week’s post and this one. Let’s say that you know a homosexual who is unrepentant—clearly outside the bounds of Scriptural purity. You’re not particularly mean to them, but you judge them, refuse to be around them, think better of yourself than them. Let’s follow Jesus’ logic:
1. You judge them for sexual sin—sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. (Initial premise)
2. You have judged them, so you’ll be judged by the same measure. (Matt 7:1-6)
3. The root of sexual sin is lust; the lust is the sin, not the sex. (Matt 5:27-30)
4. Therefore, you are judging them for their lust. (Logic, from #3)
5. Therefore, from #4 and #2, you are condemned before God equally as them, if you have ever lusted.

Do you see the danger of judgmentalism? If you judge someone else for selfishness, then God judges you for when you are being selfish. If you measure someone else’s worth based upon their actions, then God will measure your worth by your actions.

Jesus is setting a horribly wonderful standard here: one which leaves no room but to follow His earlier advice and be forgiving of everyone, so that you may be forgiven for everything.

Now of course, this does not mean that the sin is okay. Jesus is not suggesting that we enable sin. But what He is saying is that we do not look at others and see a sinner above whom we now stand.

Instead, when we look at others we are to see ourselves, and that Jesus loves them enough to die for them—so you should certainly love them enough to talk to them kindly! Maybe your lust does not reveal itself as homosexuality…but it is still lust. Maybe your anger did not result in murder…but it is still anger. Maybe your greed did not lead to embezzlement…but it was still greed. The important thing is the sinful seed within your soul, not the social acceptableness of the plant that grew from it.

So when you are confronted with sin, be very, very cautious about judging the person committing it. Instead, play it safe and assume that Jesus actually means precisely what He says—that He will judge you just as you judge your neighbor.

The final word Jesus gives on the topic of your relationship with God is the famous (and often misunderstood) “pearls before swine” comment—“do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before swine.” People often take this as a stand-alone comment, which leads to all kinds of strange interpretations—is Jesus saying not to preach to certain types of people? Of course not.

First, understand that the “dogs what is holy” comment is probably a reference to Proverbs 26:11—that a dog returns to his vomit and a fool to his folly/unrighteousness. Further understand that by pigs he is talking about something that is ritualistically unholy in Jewish religion, and pearls are items of tremendous value.

So what is Jesus saying here?

Recall that Jesus has just finished telling us about the Gospel, and admonishing us not to judge others. By not judging others and loving them, we are treating all people—no matter how bad the sinner—with respect. But loving and not-judging others does not mean that we put ourselves in positions to be harmed by them. We can love someone and not judge them without putting ourselves in a position to fall into folly, or to be trampled underfoot by unrighteous people.

For example, does a wife forgiving her abusive husband mean that she can’t get herself away from him? Does not judging the sex offender down the road mean that you let him babysit your children? Does loving the atheist mean that you must debate him about evolution? \

Jesus here is clarifying that yes, we are to be loving and forgiving and judgment free—and that is a radical command. But that does not mean you have to be reckless and it does not mean that you should necessarily be going around sharing the Gospel with people who have no desire to hear the truth and simply want to turn it into a fight.

A pearl is a thing of value to us, but a pig cannot see its value. So don’t waste your energy throwing your valuable Gospel before those who do not appreciate it and will just use it to attack you.

Love them—yes. Share your faith with them—sure. Forgive them—definitely. Be careful not to judge them—correct. But that does not mean that you have to put yourself in a position that will get you harmed or ridiculed or mocked. If I ever meet Bill Maher on a flight somewhere, I’m not going to try and convert him from atheism; but that doesn’t mean I have to be hateful, or mean, or judge him. I can still talk to him, laugh when he says something clever or funny, and be kind to him. I just am not going to spend my energy trying to evangelize someone who is only interested in the Bible as a weapon against Christians.


Having completed His discussion in the last passage about our relationships with each other, Jesus now talks about our relationship with God. He says that our times of prayer and fasting are examples of private worship, not to be shared with others lest we do so for the wrong reasons. He says that we should not be greedy, but be content with what we have today and trust God to take care of tomorrow. And He says not to judge others, because we too are sinners and the way we judge others is how God will judge us.