Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I love the way N. T. Wright translates the opening verse of today’s Scripture lesson: “When you are practicing your piety, mind you don’t do it with an eye on the audience!” (Matthew for Everyone, p. 53) This warning about not performing for an audience continues, of course, throughout the passage. Whether you are giving away your money, or praying, or fasting, Jesus says, be careful about your intentions. Is what you are doing truly an act of devotion to God, or is it primarily an act, that is, something done to impress those around you? To be sure you’re not all about having an audience, consider doing it in private.
Jesus is continuing a theme we discussed in last week’s text, also from the Sermon on the Mount, and that is the importance of paying close attention not only to our actions and behaviors, but also to our inner lives. Last week we were reminded that not just murderous acts, but seething resentments, not just adultery but lustful thoughts, are serious problems requiring our attention, and our repentance. Here in today’s text, we are warned that even saying and doing the right things can sometimes be for the wrong reasons.
Today we live in a world of photo ops and sound bites, with politicians, athletes, Hollywood stars seemingly doing everything they can to attract the most possible attention. And it’s not only the rich and famous who fall into this publicity-seeking trap. We’ve got whole generations growing up in this country thinking everything they do needs to be shared with the world—as if it’s not recorded on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, and “liked” by hundreds of people, then it hasn’t really happened.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus called out those who trumpeted their gift-giving, prayed loudly on street corners, and put on a great show to indicate they were fasting. Who might he call out for their publicity-seeking piety today? More importantly, since Jesus was pretty big on not pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye before dealing with the log in our own (that reminder is coming up in the next chapter of Matthew), what can we do to ensure our hearts are in the right place, as we practice the Christian faith ourselves?
It may be helpful to know that the things Jesus singles out here – giving money, prayer, and fasting – are things faithful Jews saw, and still see, as standard obligations. (Wright, p. 54) “Jesus doesn’t say that these outward things don’t matter. Giving money to those in need, praying to God day by day, and fasting when it’s appropriate – he assumes that people will continue to do all of these. What matters is learning to do them simply to and for God himself. All the Sermon on the Mount, in fact, is centered on God himself, who easily gets squeezed out of religion, if we’re not careful…Jesus wants us to be so eager to love and please God that we will do everything we should do for his eyes alone.” (Wright, p. 55) Or as Tom Long puts it, “If a practice is faith put into action, faith that can be seen, Jesus’ main shift has to do with who does the seeing.” (p. 66)
“But how,” Long asks, “does this fit in with Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapter that Christians should be shining lights so that others can see their good works (Matthew 5:16)? If Christians practice the faith in secret, how can they let their light shine? This seeming contradiction clears up when we recognize that Jesus is speaking about two different types of action. There are some deeds that the church performs out in the world and in behalf of the world. For example, when Christians join with a local housing group to help construct a needed shelter in their community, they do this because they believe they are doing the will of God, a God who cares for the world. They hope both to provide adequate housing for people who do not have it and to provide a witness to the society about the ways of God. In other words, when the church performs this sort of action, Christians let their light shine, not so the world will look up and say, ‘What a wonderful organization the church is!’ but, instead, ‘What a merciful God they serve!’ There is, however, another kind of Christian action, what can be called the ‘interior disciplines’ of the faith: prayer, worship, acts of personal devotion. These disciplines grow out of a relationship with God, and, indeed, they work to express, maintain, and deepen that relationship. These disciplines are performed before God alone.” (Long, p. 66)
Let’s look, then, at the three examples Jesus gives. First, almsgiving, which simply means giving money to those in need. We’ve all seen plaques and even whole buildings emblazoned with the names of those who’ve given money to support this or that important cause. But have you ever seen the word “Anonymous” in a list of givers, sometimes even fairly high up that list with the other really big givers, and wondered about it? I often do. Specifically, I wonder if those who choose to be anonymous in those settings are thinking at all of Jesus’ words here in Matthew 6. Words about giving alms in secret, rather than to draw attention to ourselves. And certainly what’s true for those who give millions of dollars can apply perfectly well to those of us who don’t have millions to give. When we give our money away, do we do so to get credit or earn admiration from those around us? Or do we do it as quietly as we can, simply to be generous? I suppose our truly candid answers may change from day to day, or from situation to situation, but Jesus reminds us it’s a question well worth asking. God invites our generosity because he knows it’s good for our souls to loosen our grip on our possessions, and share what we have with others, particularly those who need it far more than we do. We’re invited here in today’s text to be careful not to make our giving about getting – thanks, praise, attention – in return.
As we turn to Jesus’ second example, about prayer, I’m struck by how many Presbyterians I know who are far less likely to pray long showy prayers in public than they are to be terrified to pray aloud at all! Attention-seeking prayers may not exactly be a huge temptation for you, as they were for some in Jesus’ original audience. But isn’t it interesting that even in worrying that the words we pray aloud aren’t good enough, we’re often thinking more about how others will perceive those words, than we are thinking about the one to whom we’re meant to be directing our prayers. God doesn’t require us to use a thesaurus, doesn’t demand perfect syntax, or ask that we strategically place several memorized Bible verses in each of our prayers. God just wants us to have a heart to heart conversation, honest talk with the One who made us, who loves us, who listens to us, always. And we’re to remember it’s the same audience we’re speaking to whether there happen to be others nearby or not.
Tony Campolo tells a funny story about himself in this context. It seems he was asked to offer an extemporaneous prayer at a worship service, and he found himself really getting into the prayer in a meaningful way, and kind of forgetting who else was around. For Campolo, who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia, getting into it meant that all of the educated niceties of speech flew out the window and there he was, pouring his heart out to God in the street language of his youth. After the service a woman confronted him about it, pointing out all of the grammatical errors he’d made in his prayer. Campolo blurted out, before he could stop himself, “Lady, I wasn’t talking to you anyway!”
Tom Long puts it this way: “When Jesus suggests entering your own room and shutting the door, he is using a figure of speech not to attack corporate prayer or to say that all praying should be done in a locked closet, but rather to make an emphatic point about the true audience of all prayer. It would be as if he had said, ‘When you pray, go to the deepest part of the loneliest swamp you know and hide behind the tallest tree where not even the birds and the squirrels can see you. Then, in that secluded place, you will know that all true prayer – whether it occurs in the quietness of your bedtime, in the middle of rush-hour traffic, or in unison in a vast congregation – is spoken only to the secret depths of God.’” (Long, p. 68)
Jesus also offers us this lovely framework for prayer in what we’ve come to call the Lord’s Prayer. There’s so much here that it really requires a few sermons all its own. So I’ll plan to come back to this prayer when we can do it more justice. For today, what a gift to all of us tongue-tied pray-ers to notice that Jesus actually invites us to borrow language like this when we pray. No need to reinvent the wheel. What matters, again, is not precisely what comes out of our mouths, but what is in our hearts when we pray.
Thirdly, Jesus talks about fasting, a pious practice among Jews of his day that hasn’t fully carried over into contemporary Christian practice, at least not as widely as prayer and almsgiving. But rather than losing ourselves in arguments about whether or not fasting is required of Christians, and what it should look like, remember that the focus here in the Sermon on the Mount is all about intention. Perhaps you’ve given something up for the season of Lent, which is a form of fasting. Some give up a particular kind of food or drink, a more traditional practice; others understand fasting in broader terms and choose to fast from television, or Facebook, for a period of time. Still others choose to take something on for Lent, such as an additional spiritual practice, or form of service. The important question is why are we doing these things? Do we give up chocolate for 6 weeks to draw us closer to God, or because Lent provides as good an excuse as any to get started on our diet? And if we’ve shared with anyone what we’ve given up, or taken on, for Lent this year, did we do so quietly, to ask for their encouragement, and help keep us accountable, or was there a little part of us that wanted to come across as a really devoted Christian? The why seems to be as important as the what, in all of Jesus’ teaching about Christian practices. And just as we discovered last week, there’s not a one of us that gets 100% on this test.
Which is why I also think we need to address Jesus’ words about forgiveness here in Matthew 6, before we conclude. What does he mean when he says: “if you forgive others your trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Tom Long says “it would appear that God waits to see how forgiving we are and, then, matches our level. That interpretation, however, is theologically nearsighted. Our behavior does not somehow transform an unmerciful God into a merciful one. God is forgiving even when we are not. God is generous and merciful because God is God.” (Long, p. 71) NT Wright explains it this way: “the heart that will not open to forgive others will remain closed when God’s own forgiveness is offered.” (Wright p. 60) So perhaps here in this statement on forgiveness, as elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is using hyperbole to make an important point. Surely we do not control level of God’s mercy with our own choices, be they pious or pitiful. But it’s so critical that we are people of forgiveness, it’s as if everything is at stake. Forgive then, just as you are yourself forgiven by God.
While you’re at it: give generously; pray faithfully; fast meaningfully. But “mind you don’t do it with an eye on the audience.” You’re not talking to them anyway! Do it for God alone. Amen.