The beat goes on today, faithful reader, as we continue exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew! Our key to understanding what Jesus is up to in our scripture today is to connect it to the passages that precede it. Jesus is still talking about what it looks like to live in alignment to the Kingdom. Today he’s zeroing in on what spiritual practices look like for people who are aligned with the Kingdom…
“Beware of practicing 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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so 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. 6 But 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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so 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.
Spiritual practices do not make anyone a “light of the world!”
One of the biggest (repeated) mistakes that the church and Christians have made is believing that our devotional practices make us people who inspire others to follow Jesus. As Jesus has made clear, it is the character of our community (practicing enemy love, reconciliation, commitment, generosity, etc.) that makes us a "light," and not our devotional lives. Public, ostentatious devotional practices turn people away, as they are generally perceived as an attempt to show that we’re better (“holier”) than others. And if they’re not backed up by Christlike character they are exactly the type of hypocrisy (“play acting”) that Jesus rails against.
Spiritual practices are not to be used for self-advancement.
Up to this point Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount have been absolutely against self-interest. This holds true for devotional practices as well. In Jesus’ day public displays of devotion and piety gave social status and power to those who practiced them. Furthermore, public giving would place an obligation on the recipient of the gift to celebrate and support the gift giver. If our devotional practices serve our own ends then they are illegitimate in God’s eyes.
Spiritual practices are a given!
It is worth pointing out that Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will give, pray and fast. Spiritual practices are an absolute necessity for disciples, but they are to be directed to God alone and not done for the sake of the disciple. It’s important not to throw out the baby with the bath water here. Just because spiritual practices are misused by some doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them!
The first practice is giving.
I was struck this week that the first spiritual practice mentioned by Jesus is giving. That’s probably worth paying attention to! Before even talking about praying he’s talking about giving. When we reflect on the sermon though, it makes sense. If the sermon is a call to God-likeness, that is, to live as a reflection of God (God’s image), then it follows that giving would be first, as God is above all the Giver in scripture. God gives creation life, gives us life, gives the necessities of life, gives mercy, forgiveness, etc. So if our practices follow his then giving is a good place to start.
Spiritual practices make us depend on God.
Giving, praying alone and fasting all have one thing (at least) in common: they make us weak. We give up money, time and physical strength when we practice them, and these things are necessities to make things happen in life. Yet by practicing them we allow God’s strength to be revealed, as we must depend on him and not on our own abilities to make things happen. Of course there are few things that characterized the life and ministry of Jesus more than his voluntary weakness. He left what little social security or power he had by leaving his family and hometown, he gave up his opportunity to make money and friends of status for the sake of his message, and finally gave up all his time and strength by going to the cross. And through this voluntary weakness the power of God was revealed in life, healing, hope and resurrection… may our spiritual practices follow his example!