Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Matthew 7:7-11 - "Ask, and it shall be given to you..."

I know, this is another section that appears to be disconnected with Jesus' teaching on not judging your brother. Sure, it's possible that Jesus might be changing the subject here, except that if you skip down to verse 12 he says, "Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." The "therefore" means he is summing up all that he had just previously said. What's more, the concluding exhortation "however you want people to treat you, so treat them" does happen to sum up nicely what he says about "do not judge lest you be judged."

In other words if you get your Bible out and look at the whole passage, 7:1-12, you'll see that verses 1 and 2 sound similar to verse 12. And verse 12 has the "therefore" in it, which is a word that signals "concluding statement here." So my idea is that this entire section, verses 1-12, belongs together as a single unit and is talking about the same theme. That means our passage today on "ask and it will be given to you" must also fit into this topic of not judging and of treating others as you would want to be treated. (I hope this is making sense. It's always so annoying when Bible studies get overly technical.)

"Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you" is such a practical, encouraging exhortation that I really do think it could be applied your prayer life in general. But specifically in this context I think Jesus is talking about prayer for wisdom in dealing with others. On one hand you don't want to judge people, but on the other hand you will want to take that speck out of your brother's eye without being a hypocrite about it. And even after you've first taken the log out of your own eye, you still have to beware of casting your pearls before swine. You don't want to share counsel that isn't welcome and wind up getting attacked yourself.

How do you navigate your way around such a situation? How do you have the discernment to tell what is the right course of action? Pray to God for wisdom. Ask, seek and knock, and you won't be denied.

Is this too narrow an understanding of the "ask, seek, knock" teaching on prayer? Well, as I said I don't think you have to apply this promise only to asking for wisdom in your life, but since the context does seem to slant the application in the this direction, it's also interesting to note that the epistle of James says:

"But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (1:5).

James seems to echo this very teaching of Jesus' when he repeats the promise of "ask . . . and it will be given to [you]," except he applies it specifically to asking for wisdom. And like Jesus' teaching, James roots this promise in the generous nature of God "who gives to all men generously and without reproach."

Jesus promises that God will not withhold "good gifts" from his children, just as an earthly father would never withhold good gifts like bread or fish from his earthly children. Frankly, I remember asking God for many things that he never gave me, and I'm sure you've experienced the same. I can only conclude that God did not consider what I asked for to be something good for me at the time.

Yet wisdom is always a good gift, isn't it? Can you imagine asking God for wisdom with a sincere heart and not receiving it? Wisdom is the best of gifts. God was pleased when Solomon asked for wisdom instead of riches or power. By making that request he showed his heart was in the right place. The same goes for us. Wisdom tells us how to deal with people, how to avoid offending a brother or getting entangled with an enemy, how to know when to speak and when to shut up. The practice of prayer is mysterious to us sometimes, but it's nice to know that wisdom is one surefire thing you can ask for and will never be denied.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Matthew 7:6 - "Do not give what is holy to dogs..."

Check most commentaries and they'll tell you that Jesus' teaching about not throwing your pearls before swine has nothing to do with what he just got through saying about not judging others. One moment he's saying, "Don't judge" and now suddenly he's saying, "Don't throw your pearls before swine." Supposedly this is just some random saying thrown into the mix of Jesus' wise sayings kind of like the Book of Proverbs.

I don't know. My default position is to assume that Jesus doesn't suffer from ADD and doesn't just let random thoughts pop out of his mouth because he happened to see some mangy animals wander by as he was teaching. "So if you don't wish to judge your brother you should first take the log out of your own eye, blah, blah . . . Hey, look at that dog and pig over there! That reminds me, don't give what's holy to dogs or cast your pearls before swine. Anyhow, as I was saying..."

The problem is how to connect up these teachings of Jesus. Here's my best shot at it. Jesus just finished saying that if you want to confront your brother about his sin without judging him, you'll have to deal with your own sin first. In other words, it's going to cost you some. You'll have to humble yourself, take a good look at your own heart, and be unsparing on yourself if you want to be rid of the log in your own eye. It might occur to you that maybe your brother isn't worth the trouble. Maybe you shouldn't bother to put yourself through all that and you should just keep silent. But if that's a brother in the faith you want to help, you will take the trouble because you love him. You're fellow sojourners in the faith, right? You are your brother's keeper.

By contrast do you have the same obligation to those with whom you share no common faith? In Jesus' day the Gentiles were referred to as dogs, godless unbelievers who were outside the covenant. In Matthew 15:26 there is the story where Jesus told the Syrophoenician woman "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." The Jews, God's covenant people, are referred to as "children" and "brothers" and all sorts of family-type names. But the Gentiles who are outsiders are called "dogs" or even "swine" since pigs are animals that the Jews detest for their filth.

It is one thing to go through the trouble of scouring your soul so that you can see clearly to remove a speck from a brother's eye. It's quite another to attempt to do the same for an unbeliever who has no interest getting specks, logs, two-by-fours, or what have you removed from their eye. A dog who roams wildly or a pig that wallows in the filth of sin may not want to be tamed or pulled out of the mud. Your good advice, your "pearls" as it were, would most likely be rejected and you yourself could wind up torn to pieces.

Most of us have even experienced this when we have tried in our misguided ways to evangelize. Confronting unbelievers about their sin never comes off to them as being "loving" no matter how much we may protest about our good intentions. They only feel judged and patronized and attacked, so they will feel justified in attacking back. That's why Jesus says: save it. You have no obligation to give your pearls to that type of person. "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Cor. 2:14).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Matthew 7:3-5 - "And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye...?"

Jesus has already warned us of the poetic justice that awaits us if we make it a practice to judge others. "For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." If Jesus is trying to scare us with this talk, I'd say he's succeeded. But as soon as we start thinking we'll never ever want to speak to a brother about his sin again, Jesus gives us this instruction on how to confront someone properly.

I don't know how logs can get into people eyes, just as I don't know how camels can jump through eyes of needles or mountains can be picked up and thrown into the sea. Jesus likes to speak in hyperbole and maybe his audience found it humorous. In any case no one can see clearly with a log in his or her eye, certainly not clearly enough to see a speck in someone else's eye. Not only is it hypocritical to be pointing a finger at the other person, but you can't even see clearly enough to help them until you've taken care of yourself. So Jesus isn't utterly discouraging us from giving this kind of help to another person, he's just saying first things first.

I've often wondered how Jesus can be so sure that my problem is log-sized and the other person's problem is speck-sized. Is my sin always several million times greater than the other person's? I don't know if I buy that. But now I'm thinking that Jesus may not necessarily be making an objective statement about whose sin is greater, rather he is talking about a subjective assessment of personal sin. How should I view my own sin in comparison with someone else's? To me it is log-sized because it is my own. It stumbles me, it blinds me, it renders me incapable of helping the other person. For me it feels like a log while the other person's looks like a mere speck. Mine is the more pressing need of the two. It is the priority.

The trickiest part of the whole situation is that we tend to be most critical of people who commit the same sins we do. In other words, it is when the log in our own eye is the biggest that we think we see other people's specks most clearly. Hey, I recognize what's wrong with that person because I do the same thing! But, Jesus says, you have a log in your eye that is preventing you from seeing clearly. No, no, I do see clearly because I see how the other person is sinning! No, Jesus says, this is exactly when you are the most blind and the most prone to passing unrighteous judgment.

"Seeing clearly" couldn't just be about recognizing that someone else is sinning. We're all good at doing that. That's what makes us so judgmental. Jesus says we must "see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye," which means seeing clearly how to help him get out of his entanglement with sin. That kind of sight can only be acquired when we have learned how to deal with our own sin. Going through the whole humiliating process of trying and failing and stumbling around like a total loser, and after all is said and done we're still not sure we're completely free from the old ways. We've learned to distrust ourselves. Okay, now we're ready to help the other person, but this time it will be with a heart of sympathy and compassion, not a judgmentalism. It is that kind of sympathy and compassion, viewing that brother or sister not with condescending disdain but as an equal, that gives us the eyes we need to see clearly.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Matthew 7:1-2 - "Do not judge lest you be judged..."

Back in my college days this passage and I got off on the wrong foot together. In the Christian campus groups I was involved with, whenever someone started doing something questionable, he or she would immediately go around saying, "Don't judge me!" as a way of pre-empting any confrontation about their behavior. So I took Matthew 7:1 to be a convenient slap-down text used by people who wanted to get away with whatever they wished. As a corrective to this abuse I was later told by some Christian leaders that it is actually okay to judge other people. It's not really judging, they said, it's "spiritual discernment" and you do it for the good of others. Of course no one ever explained to me what the bad kind of judgment is that Jesus forbids. And I also noticed that this so-called "spiritual discernment" we practiced sure did seem to hurt, alienate and exclude a lot of people from our group.

Some years later I've been able to make my peace with this passage even though I'm aware of the ways it is sometimes abused. While it's unfortunate that some Christians do use it in an accusatory manner against others ("Don't judge me!"), the important thing to realize is that Jesus never says, "Don't let others judge you," but rather, "Don't judge others." Sure, people might judge you. That's not what Jesus is focusing on. What's important is that you don't do the same to other people. He's talking about examining your own heart.

"Do not judge lest you be judged." The reason you shouldn't judge is that you wouldn't want to be judged yourself. Jesus' rationale here has a similar ring to his instruction to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." How should you treat others? Ask yourself how you would want to be treated. Similar guidelines should be used for knowing whether you are judging someone else. Would you want to be judged the way you are judging that person? How would you rather be treated? How would you rather be spoken to if the situation was reversed?

"For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." Jesus now pushes this thought beyond the theoretical and seems to promise that you will be judged as you judge others. Your standard of treatment will boomerang back to you and you'll get the full taste of either mercy or judgment, depending on what you dole out. I'm of two minds about this. He could be talking about the Day of Judgment. If you lived a life devoid of any grace or mercy in your heart, it will be proof that you never knew Jesus, in which case he will say, "Depart from me" and you will have to face judgment just as you lived a life of judging others.

But he could also be talking about a principle that holds true in this life. If you are a judgmental person, other people will respond to you in kind. In this way God will make sure you get a taste of your own medicine. The reason I lean toward this understanding of Jesus' teaching is that I see it in my own life. Many times I've been on the receiving end of the kind of judgment I used to exercise on other people. Ohhh, I get it. So that's what it's like to be on the receiving end of me. It's a sure-fire method God has used to cure me of some of my blindness. By your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

I wouldn't go as far as saying you should never confront other people about their sin. In our next passage we'll see that Jesus actually encourages us to do so. But when you have been on the receiving end of being judged, you do learn how to restrain yourself when you are tempted to pass judgment on others. Maybe that person didn't respond to my greeting because she is preoccupied with some bad news. Maybe that person who cut me off on the road is going through a divorce. Maybe I should talk to that person before I claim to understand their motives. Maybe I shouldn't assume I understand where that person is coming from, even though I think I do because of all the gossip I've heard. Maybe that person's silence isn't a guilty silence but a fear of being misunderstood. We're so good at imagining evil when speculating about people's motives. Yet somehow we're not so good at employing our imaginations to come up with reasonable explanations when it comes to giving others a break.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Matthew 6:34 - "Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow..."

For the third time in this section Jesus repeats the command, "Do not be anxious." First he said, "Do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall put on" (v. 25). Then he said, "Do not be anxious saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'With what shall we clothe ourselves?'" (v. 31). And now he says, "Do not be anxious for tomorrow." Sometimes when you listen to a sermon on Sunday morning the preacher will repeat a little catch phrase to help you remember the summary of what he said just in case you forget everything else during the week. So here. Even if you forget everything Jesus said about birds and flowers and barns and grass, he wants you at least to remember one thing: Do not be anxious.

When Jesus says, "Do not be anxious for tomorrow," I tend to connect that with what he said earlier in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread." To ask simply for our daily bread is a positive way of saying that we shouldn't be worrying about tomorrow's bread. It is a very humble approach to daily living, and it reflects a childlike relationship with one's heavenly Father. Just as he feeds the birds and all the creatures of the earth, so he feeds you. You open your mouth and he fills it. You may think that you have your week or your month or even your year planned, with enough money in the bank to give you that cushion just in case you lose your job. The illusion of providing for yourself is always before you, but in fact each day's provision comes directly from the hand of God. Anxiety about tomorrow comes from losing sight of that reality. Recognizing that it is God who "gives us this day our daily bread" helps you to rest in being provided for just for today. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

I think this way of thinking is one of the most difficult for me personally, but the challenge of it intrigues me. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I've been encouraged my entire life to be anxious for tomorrow. It's not just about laying the plans to make all my tomorrows financially secure. It's also about living for tomorrow's dreams, tomorrow's possibilities, and warding off tomorrow's dangers. Anxiety about tomorrow is considered the mark of maturity and responsibility. Thinking and planning for tomorrow is for the smart, ambitious people who dream big and have grand goals for themselves. And so in our wealthy culture we tend not to be anxious about literal daily bread so much, but about whether God will feed our hunger for meaning and worth and signficance. Everywhere I look I see people who are anxious about their tomorrows, whether their lives will amount to anything, whether they will make the difference they hoped to make, whether their lives are headed in the right direction.

About a year and a half ago a thirty-three year-old woman who attended our church succumbed to cancer. Though I can't remember her exact words, she said something like, "The life you live today is the life you will live everyday until you die." To me that is a very good application of Jesus' exhortation not to always be living under the shadow of tomorrow. What is the sum of your life going to look like when you are lying on your death bed? It's not the visions about tomorrow but the reality of today that will tell you. What was today like? Did you serve? Did you trust? Did you pray? That's your life right there. When you die that's the life you'll have to look back on.

Jesus is really saying that tomorrow is an illusion. We don't know anything about it at all except what our fears imagine. So don't fritter away today's moments with tomorrow's anxieties. Don't let visions of tomorrow's imagined success or failure rob you of the gift of today. You might die tomorrow and all your dreams about the future would go up in smoke. But today is real, and your relationship with God is real only in the todays of your life, not in the tomorrows. You can't know if you will trust God tomorrow but you can know whether you will trust him today. That's all he'll ever ask you to do anyhow.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Matthew 6:31-33 - "Do not be anxious then, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?'...

Jesus has finished giving us illustrations from nature on how God takes care of his creatures. He then reiterates what he said earlier in verse 25 about not being anxious for food, drink or clothing, this time pointing out that the Gentiles are the ones who seek after these things.

Why do the Gentiles behave this way? Because they don't know the true God. They don't have a relationship with the one who commanded the whole world into existence, nor do they know him as "Father." So of course they live in anxiety and spend their lives hording and toiling and amassing resources to ensure their own survival. But if you do know the true God as your Father, you should behave accordingly. Anxiety about bodily needs is for godless people, but for a child of God to behave that way is totally inappropriate. It's like saying you don't have a heavenly Father. It's behaving like a Gentile.

Jesus goes on to say, "For your heavenly Father knows you need these things." I view this as one of those gracious understatements you make when someone practically insults you with their low expectations about your capabilities. "Um, I do know how to tie my own shoes." "Yes, I know how to spell my own name." "I know my right hand from my left, thanks." Jesus may well have said, "Since your heavenly Father did create the world, knows all things from the beginning to the end of time, and sustains the breath of every living thing by the pleasure of his will, I'm sure he is aware of your basic need to eat, drink and put stuff on." I sense that Jesus is being a little stern with us when he says, "O men of little faith!" but he's nowhere near as indignant as he could be considering that our anxiety reflects our tremendously low expectations of God.

But what is all this teaching about anxiety over God's provision leading to? Living healthier and happier lives? Having a positive outlook that wins friends and influences people? Managing money God's way? Actually it's this: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you." The assurance that God is taking care of you frees you up to seek first his kingdom. What's the connection? Well, when you think about it seeking first God's kingdom means putting God first, and putting God first means putting the needs of others first--your family, your friends, your church, your neighbors. You serve God through serving his people. Jesus says that to the extent that you minister to the least of his brothers who are among the hungry, the sick, the naked and the imprisoned, you have done so to him. In short, seeking first the kingdom means you have to give.

The reason we don't give is that we think we can't afford to give. Instead of being willing to see how much God will provide when we do step out in faith to give, we tend to shrink back. We immediately became worried we won't have enough left for ourselves. Here's the proof: as soon as Jesus asks us to "freely give" and "seek ye first" what's the first thing we imagine? Ourselves homeless and destitute on the streets all because we followed Jesus' dumb advice. Our minds run to the most extreme scenario and use that as an excuse to justify our disobedience.

But the reality is that most of us will never end up that bad off. And those of us who are experiencing financial problems could probably get it solved by giving more and letting God "add all these things to you." Seeking first the kingdom is what ensures that you will be provided for. Seeking first yourself ensures only anxiety and warring against the God who alone can give you the security you desire.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Matthew 6:28-30 - "And why are you anxious about clothing?"

Jesus deals similarly with our anxiety about clothing as he did with our anxiety over food. He directs us to the creation that God cares for, this time to the "lilies of the field." Most commentators agree that these are probably the wildflowers that spring up in abundance apart from anyone's gardening care. God clothes these common flowers with a beauty that they did not have to provide for themselves.

What astonishes me about this passage is that Jesus approaches our anxiety over clothing by talking about God as the Creator and Originator of beauty. In other words he knows right away that our main concern about clothing is whether we'd look nice, and he goes overboard to reassure us on that point. Really, how indulgent is that? You'd expect that he would view clothes as something that merely covers us or warms us or shields us from the weather. "Observe the fur of goats, how it grows. You see that God covers the goats and keeps them warm. How much more will he cover you?" Then we'd all dutifully brace ourselves for being covered by God all right--just looking ugly. Of course we'd all do our best to be grateful that we are at least clothed. Besides, bearing with ugliness is a good spiritual discipline. Very humbling, you know.

Well forget that, because Jesus uses the wildflower as an illustration, not goat's hair. Oddly, he doesn't even try to come up with something that illustrates both function and beauty, such as bird feathers. ("See? Keeps you warm and looks great too!") He goes straight for the most exquisite thing he can think of, a wildflower that exists primarily to startle you with its beauty. "Even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these." His point is that when you release your anxiety about clothing over to God, you're putting yourself in good hands. God knows that our concern centers not merely on having something to put on, to put a barrier between skin and the elements, but on whether our personal dignity will be protected too. He know we're anxious about the social aspect of being clothed in something appropriate and presentable. Yeah, he gets it.

Jesus then lets us in on a little secret about God. God values beauty for beauty's sake. He doesn't mind investing his artistic talents into clothing the fields with his wildflowers even when he knows they will all be gone the next day, cut down and tossed into someone's fireplace for fuel. Why does God bother? Why does he make flowers grow in far off places, forgotten hilltops and valleys that will never be seen by the human eye? Apparently he does it for his own enjoyment. He likes making beautiful things just so he can look at them. It's a part of his nature. So how much more will he do for us, his beloved children, who are more precious to him than weeds, and are destined not for the furnace but to dwell with him in the kingdom forever?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Matthew 6:25-27 - "For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life..."

Jesus just got through saying that you cannot be devoted to two masters. Inevitably you end up preferring one over the other. Specifically, you can't serve God and material possessions. You will either end up putting all your hope and security in the Giver or in the Things Given.

"For this reason, do not be anxious for your life." In other words if you want to avoid the trap of putting your hope and security in Things, if you want to stay focused on who your true master is, then here's the secret: Don't be anxious. Yep, that's right. All that anxiety about your material needs has to go. There. All better now?

But we need a little more help than that, something reassuring and concrete. So look at the birds. No, don't look at your online bank statement. Open the blinds or curtains or whatever and look at the birds outside. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Now at this point you have to understand that the people in Jesus' day lived in an agricultural community. Their form of anxiety involved sowing seed and anxiously waiting for the rains to come. Then when the rains came and the crops grew, they anxiously hoped that frost or locusts didn't destroy the crops before harvest time. Then after they reaped the harvest they stored the extra in barns as a safeguard in case next year's crop should fail. It was a continual cycle of anxiety at every stage of sowing, reaping and gathering into barns.

Our equivalent would be getting anxious over landing a job, then being anxious about whether the paycheck would be enough to cover the bills, then if there's some money left over putting it into a savings account as a safeguard against next month's expenses. So Jesus might very well say to us, "Look at the birds of the air. They neither land jobs, bring home paychecks, nor set up savings accounts, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?"

I think the "worth much more than they" part is the most comforting. Our security can be anchored in knowing that God values our lives more than all the other creatures of the earth--and we see plainly how well he cares for them. I don't think we really believe that God takes care of us because we are worth so much to him. We think it's because we're trying hard to be good little girls and boys who make our beds and wash up and say "please" and look sorry when we are scolded. We act like we're in some 19th century Charles Dickens orphanage where at any moment we could be turned out into the icy streets if we violate one of God's petty headmaster rules. The truth is we're privileged sons and daughters in our father's own home, and he gives us everything we need in abundance even though we daily break all the major rules of house.

Since we're already in that safe and secure place, you can see how being anxious isn't going to add a single cubit to our lifespan as Jesus says. It's like this. If you're anxious every day, your Father will love you and provide for you. But if you're not anxious at all, your Father will love you and provide for you. How does adding anxiety to the mix help you to come out ahead? It doesn't. So lose the anxiety and rest in the provision of the Giver, then you'll see clearly who your true Master is.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Matthew 6:24-25 - "No one can serve two masters..."

It's a good thing I read up on this passage because I learned a couple of things I didn't know before. First of all our English translation which reads "he will hate the one [master] and love the other [master]" comes off a little too strongly. It's not so much about hating and loving as we think of it, but more about having a preference for one over the other. "He will end up loving one master more than the other" is closer to what Jesus is saying. It's similar to the confusion over Jesus' saying, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother..." The Lord is asking you to prefer him over your parents, not hate your parents in the way we normally think of that term.

Secondly, I learned that mammon can best be translated "material possessions," whereas I had always thought it was a synonym for "money." "Money" is apparently too narrow a meaning because "mammon" refers to your possessions in general. It hits on the problem of materialism, which is everyone's problem regardless of how rich or poor you are.

So now the passage makes a lot more sense. "No one can serve two masters" means that no one can be devoted to two masters. Sure, you can serve two masters in terms of fulfilling your duties to both of them. We do it all the time. For example, at work you can have two bosses, one in lower management and one in upper. But you will always compare the two and have a preference for one over the other. "For either he will hate [love to a lesser degree] the one and love [to a greater degree] the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other."

Therefore, Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Jesus knows what a stronghold material possessions have upon us. We have to surround ourselves with lots of things to feel secure. We derive feelings of worth from our possessions. We put our trust in the number that shows up on our bank account statement. Security, worthiness, trust--see how easily all those feelings that should center upon God get sucked into the vortex of material things? That's what Jesus is saying. You cannot serve both God and materialism. You tend to attach yourself to either one or the other. You tend to invest all your hope and self-worth and general feelings of well-being into either the God who loves you and gives you all things generously, or into the things themselves--and then you sit surrounded in the middle of your pile as if it were a great fortress against the uncertainty and tragedy of the world.

Jesus knows that we need material things like food and clothes and shelter but it's just that we need to be aware of the two masters principle. Our hearts tend to cling either to the Giver or to the Things Given, and we have to be on guard about that. We have to focus on the Giver always, which Jesus is going to talk more about in our next passage.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Matthew 6:22-23 - "The lamp of the body is the eye..."

Whenever I don't understand what a passage is talking about--which happens frequently with the sayings of Jesus--I try to start with what I do understand and take it step by step from there. This is one of those.

This passage comes after Jesus' teaching that you should lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth, and comes before his teaching that you cannot serve two masters. There's a common theme here. You cannot live for both heaven and earth, for both God and money. You have to choose. Where does your heart's treasure really lie? It's obvious that today's passage, which is sandwiched right in between, must also be addressing this theme.

That means Jesus' analogy about the eye's relationship to the body has to be illustrating this theme. Your eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is clear your whole body is full of light. But if your eye is bad then your whole body is full of darkness. In other words if your eye can see clearly your whole body knows where it's going, but if your eye is blind you essentially exist in darkness. When you think about it, there isn't a practical difference between being in a dark room versus being in a lit room with your eyes shut. Once your eye shuts out the light, you are in darkness. Your body doesn't know where to go or what to do. But when your eye takes in the light, your body is also "sees" clearly.

How does the eye/light/body analogy fit with the theme of making the right choice about where your true treasure lies? I see two possibilities that center around the Greek word haplous which my Bible translates as "clear." What does it mean to have a haplous or clear eye?

I am told that a literal translation of haplous is "single" or "undivided," as in undivided loyalty. This seems to fit into Jesus' overall exhortation quite nicely because then he's saying that having a "single eye" is having an undivided loyalty to God, as opposed to trying to serve two masters or lay up treasure in two places. That single-eyed devotion brings light and clarity of purpose to the whole body, whereas the double-minded person dwells in darkness and doesn't know where their true treasure ought to lie.

I know that explanation sounds really convincing but there's also another equally compelling possibility. The word haplous can have the connotation--or the implied meaning--of "generous." For instance, the adverbial form of haplous shows up in James 1:5: "God who gives to all men generously (haplos)." So now we have to consider that Jesus may be talking about having a "generous eye." What's more the term "bad" that Jesus uses when he says "if your eye is bad" could mean having an "evil eye," which is a common expression for jealousy, miserliness and ungenerosity. In short, Jesus could be saying that a generous eye gives light, clarity and purpose to the whole body, whereas an ungenerous eye causes the whole person to dwell in darkness.

And yet a third possibility--if you can believe it--may be that Jesus wants to imply both meanings and is using haplous as a play on words. Seeing your true master with a single-eyed loyalty enables you to be generous, whereas having divided loyalties will blind you with miserliness. One enlightens you with purpose and direction while the other leaves you wandering in confusion.

I'll leave you to make the call. But whatever nuance you find most convincing, getting the overall message of setting your sights on your true treasure and your true master is what's important.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Matthew 6:19-21 - "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth . . ."

Laying up your treasure in heaven and not upon earth seems like a fitting summary to Jesus' promise--which he emphasizes three times in this chapter--that "your Father who sees in secret will repay you." Up until now Jesus has been exhorting us to forsake the praise of men. Don't sound a trumpet as you dump your gift into the temple treasury, or make a display of yourself on the street corner to say your prayers, or look haggard and miserable when you fast. Otherwise people will notice and reward you with their earthly praise.

Jesus must have religious leaders particularly in mind, because in the secular world you can't gain earthly treasure by showing everyone how awesome you are at praying, fasting and giving alms. Only someone who aspires to be a religious leader might be tempted to use pious hypocrisy as a means of obtaining the kind of material reward that moths and rust and thieves can prey upon. With all the spiritual charlatans who are profiting by preaching a false, fleshly gospel today, you don't have to look far to see the kind of person Jesus is talking about. Peddling the gospel for money is strongly condemned by the New Testament writers.

But aside from being a warning to church leaders, it can be an encouragement to the lay person who serves in obscurity. I think deep down a lot of regular church members feel like second class citizens of the kingdom because they aren't serving as one of the ordained leaders of the church. Like, maybe when we all get to heaven it will be all the pastors and elders and missionaries who get dealt the big juicy rewards while everyone else will have to be content receiving the consolation prize.

But this passage levels the playing field. What matters is where you are laying up your treasure and where your heart is. The less recognition you get in this life for doing good, the more your heavenly Father is obligated to "repay" you by rewarding you in heaven. This is essentially what it means to lay up treasure in heaven, which is why Jesus encourages secret piety. When I think about it, this principle can actually work against people who serve in high profile ministry capacities since many of them face greater temptations in desiring the praise of others, whereas the person who serves in obscurity may face fewer distractions. In that sense, perhaps being an unrecognized layperson is a blessing in disguise: the lack of praise you are getting in this life is laying away a storehouse full of treasure in the next.

It's interesting that Jesus says "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." I guess if it were me, I would have put it the other way around: where your heart is, there will your treasure also be. The problem with my idea is that it's hard to know exactly where your heart's at, isn't it? Is my heart in heaven, or is my heart set on earth? So maybe Jesus is saying, lay up treasure in heaven, because the more you invest there, the more your heart will grow attached to the things of the next life. Having that stash of treasure up there will guarantee that your heart will become weaned away from this earth and increasingly crave the solid things of heaven.

What is this treasure? I don't know. Does it matter? It's better than anything earth has to offer. It's incorruptible, unbreakable, and worth all the sufferings you've ever been through. It has to do with receiving the praise of God, a special place of service in the kingdom, a seat at Jesus' banqueting table, an inheritance. Those are just metaphors that combine together into something wonderful beyond comprehension that I won't even attempt to describe.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Matthew 6:16-18 - "And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face..."

A pastor friend once pointed out to me that Jesus says "whenever you fast," meaning that Jesus is assuming that you fast as a normal part of your Christian practice. Like most modern evangelicals it doesn't occur to me to make fasting a regular part of my routine. Worship, fellowship, sacraments, Bible reading, giving, serving, praying . . . and fasting. But maybe it should. I know that fasting, when combined with prayer, is a way of humbling yourself before God when you are particularly intense about making a request. Recall how Queen Esther asked the Jewish people to fast for three days as she prepared to risk her life to come before the king. I've also noticed that when I'm really, miserably sick, I seem to pray more effectively. There does seem to be a close connection between physical weakness and spiritual strength. I'd have to assume that the bodily weakness that comes with fasting strengthens your prayers in a similar way.

However, the point Jesus is making is not that you should fast--because he assumes you already are--but how you go about it. He says that when you go through your pious sufferings, you should not be making a big display of it for everybody to see. Don't go around looking all haggard but conceal your discomfort from others so that only your heavenly Father knows. You might even say he's asking us to practice a kind of "reverse hypocrisy." If hypocrisy is putting on a display of piety when in secret you're far from it, then this reverse hypocrisy is about having the appearance of normalcy when in secret you are making a sacrifice to the Lord that is somewhat costly.

I don't think he's talking about keeping your sufferings to yourself in general and never allowing others to bear your burdens. (We are commanded to bear one another's burdens after all.) Instead it sounds to me like he's talking about certain acts that you ought to be doing for God's eyes alone. Giving alms and praying fall into that category--which Jesus talked about earlier. And now fasting.

This is the third time in the chapter that Jesus refers to God as "your Father who sees in secret" and promises that "your Father who sees in secret will repay you." As I've mentioned earlier, sometimes I wonder if we've gotten way too caught up in thinking Christianity is all about "being an example" and "being a witness" and generally putting everything out there on display for others to (supposedly) benefit from. If we're not careful, we'll get all our reward here on earth through the praise of others, and there will be nothing secret left for the Father to reward. Besides, putting everything on display takes all the fun out of it. Secrecy gives you a chance to cultivate your relationship with God, to have something that belongs to you and him alone, making your relationship with him seem all the more real.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Matthew 6:14-15 - "For if you forgive men for their transgressions..."

This is one of those passages you gloss over because you don't want to deal with the seemingly raw conditionality of Jesus' statement. If you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you don't forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you. Jesus is really tightening the screws on his earlier statement in the Lord's Prayer which was "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." It's one thing to say, "to the extent that I forgive, may I be forgiven." But it's quite another to notch that idea up to: "if I don't forgive, then I won't be forgiven by my Father."

The main stumbler here is that Jesus seems to make the gospel sound suddenly conditional when we thought it was supposed to be free. Isn't the gospel supposed to be "freely you have received, freely give" and "whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved"? The gospel never says, "if you believe in the Lord Jesus and forgive everyone in your life who has ever sinned against you, you will be saved."

And in fact, it would be impossible for us to forgive others as an initial condition of receiving God's forgiveness. That's because an ungenerate person is spiritually dead and incapable of that kind of grace. We love because God first loved us. Our ability to forgive flows from knowing his forgiveness. So even aside from the theological problem of making the gospel conditioned on granting forgiveness, it's a problem of logistics. Forgiveness can't be granted to others unless divine forgiveness has first been received.

For that reason I view this teaching as addressing--I guess you might say--a moral principle that governs my ongoing relationship with my heavenly Father. Jesus is teaching us how to address the Father in prayer, so he is assuming that you already have received the love and forgiveness and sonship that comes with being able to call God your Father. But when you come to him and commune with him and ask him to do stuff for you, does it make sense to be demanding forgiveness from him when you aren't willing to grant it to others? Forget about all the panicky questions that are rising up in your mind like: "How can Jesus say this?" "How can he expect me to forgive like that?" and "How am I supposed to live up to these conditions?" Just view it purely from a childlike perspective of what makes sense morally. Does it make sense to ask God's forgiveness for your offenses against him when you aren't willing to forgive other people's offenses against your piddly little self? Well . . . no, right? Logically speaking and morally speaking it makes no sense at all.

Oddly enough, I think yielding to that plain and simple truth is really half the battle. The other questions about how such forgiveness can be granted and whether you can pull it off become less daunting. They will work themselves out over time. And you can't discount the fact that forgiving others makes God's forgiveness more real to you, which in turn gives you the strength and motivation to forgive others. It's a cycle of grace that continually feeds itself.