Monday, June 11, 2007


In a newsletter article encouraging people to join this reading adventure, I mentioned the importance for interfaith dialogue of going deep into our own tradition. Remarkably, I recently came across the following from the book Living Buddha, Living Christ by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Many years ago, I recognized that by understanding your own tradition better, you also develop increased respect, consideration, and understanding for others. It doesn’t always work that way, unfortunately, but it can and should. Later in the book he also wrote something very interesting for those of us reading through the New Testament this year. If you read the Bible but don’t practice, it will not help much.

I also want to mention two resources I am finding very helpful as I provide some comments for our reading together. I am making a lot of use of The People’s New Testament Commentary, Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock (WestminsterJohnKnox Press, 2004) and of the notes found in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. I am making no claims to scholarly completeness in my comments. Much more could be said. Many of the other comments I make will be based on other things I have read or simply my own engagement with the New Testament as a person of faith.

Matthew 6:1-4: The teaching of Jesus continues. He has been describing what God’s people should be like, the kind of people they should be and the kind of things they should do. Love tops the list, even love for enemies. Jesus has been interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Now he turns his eye on practices, letting the disciples know how their spiritual practice should be distinct from some of the practices they might encounter around them. Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point (one cannot literally have one hand do something while the other hand is ignorant of that action!). He begins by cautioning the disciples not to practice their “piety” before others. The word “piety” used here is the same word translated “righteousness” in the previous chapter. The entire first part of this chapter, where the disciples are asked to do things quietly and in secret seems to contradict what Jesus says in chapter 5 about letting one’s light shine so others can see it and give glory to God. There is here a creative tension. “Proverbial wisdom does not deal in bland platitudes, but is provocatively paradoxical” (People’s New Testament Commentary, 35). What Jesus seems to encourage in his comments on giving to others, prayer and fasting is that these practices come from the heart and not from a shallow desire to look good to others or to increase one’s social standing. In this first section, we are invited to give because we genuinely care about the needs of others. Another provocative paradox in the spiritual life might be that we can sometimes do things for the “wrong reasons” at first, but our practice leads us into a transformed heart. For those in need of our generosity, it does not matter all that much whether we have our inner life all figured out, yet transformation of our lives inside and out is what God’s Spirit is trying to do in us.

Matthew 6:5-14: The focus of prayer should be opening ourselves to God, making ourselves more keenly aware of God’s presence in us and to us. If we pray so others notice our eloquence, we are praying for the wrong reasons. That certainly doesn’t mean we should not pray in public together. It does not preclude eloquence in prayers, especially if we compose prayers for shared use. Again the point is to ask ourselves why we are doing what we do. Is our focus to look good or to genuinely open ourselves up to God and to each other? In verses 9-13 we have the most famous prayer in the Christian faith tradition, called “the Lord’s Prayer.” Books have been written about this prayer alone, so commenting on it is rather daunting. As a prayer, it is as important that we pray it as that we have a wonderfully worked out theology of each phrase. I appreciate Marjorie Suchocki’s words about this prayer. “The oldest Christian liturgical prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, for it has been consistently prayed by Christians for the two millennia of Christian history. When we today pray this prayer, in whatever language, we are praying the translated words and spirit of generations of Christians” (In God’s Presence, 103). Let me offer a few comments. It was not unique to Jesus that he should offer his followers a prayer, and this prayer is not atypical of other Jewish prayers of the time. Even his address of God as Father (Abba in Aramaic) was probably not entirely unique to Jesus. However, his consistent use of the term Father was a distinguishing feature of his teaching. Three important things need to be said (though even more could be). One, this phrase does imply a certain intimacy that is possible between God’s people and God. In praying this prayer, you are invited to that intimacy. Two, to call God “Father” in the first century had a political edge to it. The Roman Caesars were called “father.” For followers of Jesus to call God by that name implied that their ultimate loyalty lay beyond the empire. Christians can be loyal and patriotic citizens, and we can and should appreciate the sacrifices many fine Christians have made for country. At the same time, from its earliest years, followers of Jesus have believed that there is always a higher loyalty than country, loyalty to God. In whatever nations Christians live, they should always seek to do what they can to make their countries more just and caring, in loyalty to God. Finally, a word about gender imagery for God. When Jesus addressed God as “father,” his intent was not to make God one gender over another, but to break down social barriers. In the society in which Jesus lived, who one’s father was determined one’s social status. But if we all call God “father,” suddenly we are on equal footing. Again, let me quote Marjorie Suchocki. “By inviting us together to name God as “our Father,” Jesus replaced social privilege with the humble privilege of the Spirit. If in our day the naming of “Father” is no longer capable of carrying this liberating message, then the heart of the prayer is truncated. If we can restore the word to its liberating invitation to sharing as a single family of God, then this aspect of the prayer can be restored to its gospel intent.” (In God’s Presence, 106) Because the term “Father” does not always convey the liberating intent of Jesus, I try and alternate versions of the Lord’s Prayer prayed in church. Occasionally, I will use Father/Mother. Other times, I will use phrases like “Sacred One,” The next three phrases of the prayer belong together. To hallow God’s name is to let God’s kingdom (or reign) come, to let God’s dream arrive, to let God’s purposes prevail. Again, Marjorie Suchocki: “God’s reign comes about as we ourselves are open to that divine guidance offered us in every moment. God’s guidance, in turn, leads us toward righteousness, and righteousness is itself the hallowing of God’s name” (In God’s Presence, 106-107). To pray for God’s dream for the world to be made more real is to pray that you will be a part of making that dream real! The prayer for daily bread is an acknowledgement of basic human need and God’s concern for it. Some argue that this phrase is better translated, “give us tomorrow’s bread today” which would be another reference to the hope for God’s reign to come. I will say a word about forgiveness shortly. Prayers to be kept safe in times of trial and to be rescued from evil or “the evil one” were very real for early Christians, when proclaiming one’s faith could mean death. They are prayers to have one’s faith stay strong in difficult times. They are prayers that God's peace and justice and healing will come quickly. Seen in that light, these are prayers that can be close to our hearts, too. They are also prayers that one not get caught up in evil. The last century proved that it is very possible for “ordinary people” to get caught up in evil – the Holocaust and race relations in the United States are two prime examples. All prayer is meant to open us up more fully to the transforming power of God’s love and God’s Spirit. One clear indication of that is the close association Jesus makes between “forgiveness” and “prayer.” We pray for forgiveness, and to have the strength to forgive. I don’t know about you, but there is probably no greater need in my life for transformation than being asked to forgive. Forgiveness is complicated and it is hard work. It is also crucial for our own well-being. To forgive someone is not to excuse their behavior, but it is to let go of the anger, bitterness and pain that reside in one’s own heart. Forgiveness can take time and it need not entail full reconciliation. I like the definition of forgiveness offered by Jack Kornfield. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” I know what kind of transformative work is needed in my life so that I can be more forgiving. But for Jesus, forgiveness and prayer intertwined. “Forgiveness – one’s own readiness to forgive and a request for forgiveness where one has committed and offence – is the presupposition for the prayer of Jesus’ disciples” (Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 193).

Matthew 6:16-18: Like other spiritual practices already discussed – giving and prayer – Jesus asks that our fasting be done for the right reasons, not for show, but to better tune into God.

Matthew 6:19-21: Matthew places certain summary statements of the teaching of Jesus here and there throughout this sermon. Here we seem to have another. If Jesus is concerned about how one engages in spiritual practices, one way to put that is to talk about where one’s treasure is. Where do you invest your resources, your very self? Jesus is not here condemning earthly wealth in itself. He is issuing a cautionary note. If all your effort and striving are for things that eventually rust, break down, end up in the trash heap or scrap yard, what does that say about your life? Investing in those “things” that are truly lasting – love, justice, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness – makes one a part of something “everlasting.” While this is only one image among many Jesus will use, does it have particular relevance for our day and time when the temptations to get caught up in our consumer culture, to let oneself be defined primarily by what one can purchase, are so prevalent?

Matthew 6:22-23: In the ancient world, it was thought that the eye let light out of the body and projected it onto objects so that they could be seen. If the eye was not working, darkness and confusion reign. Jesus uses a variety of images to get his message across – get your heart set right, make sure your eye is full of light.

Matthew 6:24: Related to verses 19-21, Jesus seemed concerned that people's lives could become consumed with gaining wealth and material prosperity. No doubt he witnessed a society where many of the wealthy were so due to injustices in the imperial system. Reading the teachings of Jesus there is a consistent concern for being consumed by consumption. Again, these words seem very timely for the 21st century.

Matthew 6:25-34: Do not worry. Do not be anxious. Do not be afraid. We will encounter such words again and again and again in our reading of the New Testament. Here Jesus seems to be continuing on with his cautions about getting caught up in material concerns. Jesus is not unrealistic about our need for food or clothing, but he seems perceptive in recognizing how easily we become consumed with consuming. Again, there is a familiar summary statement. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This is followed by the familiar phrase, “so do not worry.” One of the most helpful pieces of writing I have ever read about worry is an essay that Parker Palmer wrote on leadership – “Leading From Within.” In that essay he says the following: “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94). We may have worry, fear and anxiety from time to time. Don’t beat yourself up over that. But don’t define yourself by your fears either. Again, this first century message seems particularly relevant to our twenty-first century, where fear seems to be so prominent.

These comments on the Sermon on the Mount are longer than I anticipate other comments to be. I will tackle the next chapter tomorrow and the remaining three in a couple of days. Thanks for your patience and thanks for reading.

No comments: