In Matthew 6:1-4 Jesus told his followers how they were to go about giving to the needy. The central point was that they were not to call attention to themselves. In the following verses he tells them how they are to pray (6:5-15). The structure of verses 5-8 is as follows:
Don’t call attention to your prayer life (v.5)
Do pray as follows (vv. 6-8)
a. In private
b. Don’t babble on
So the recommendation is they pray in such a way that no one even knows anything about their prayer life because they have “gone into their room and closed the door” (v. 6). There is certainly a lot of difference between the way prayer was practiced then and now. Frankly there is no one I know of who would take pleasure in “standing on the street corners” and praying. Most believers are modestly able to say in a public setting that they “have faith,” but little more. However within the believing community they want others to know how much they pray. The other piece of instruction on prayer is that they don’t “babble” on and on thinking that God will hear them if they stop long enough to take a deep breath. That’s not necessary because the Father already knows what his “children” need.
Prayer will always be, for me, a rather mysterious responsibility. If God “knows what we need” why is it that we have to tell him? Yet, at the same time it brings me closer to the one I believe to be God himself. It is clear that we know what God wants but hardly ever why he wants it. His ways are above ours. It is clear that prayer is to be a major responsibility for the Christian life. The wonderful thing is that it works. Not always as we might think, but as we look back we can see that his decisions were correct.
In the next column we will look at what is called “The Lords Prayer.” It has been cited, primarily in churches, in many languages for some 2000 years. It will be helpful for us to reflect once again on the only New Testament example by Jesus of how we should pray.
The major point in this section of the Sermon on the Mount is that we should not call attention to the good things we do. If we do there will be “no reward from our Father in heaven” (v. 1). The reason we give to the needy is to meet their need, not so that others will approve of what we have done. Giving should be so private that we can’t remember what we did – this is characterized as “not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing (v. 3).
Why is it so difficult to get along without the approval of others? The answer is not difficult when we reflect on the fact that self-concern is the dominant feature of human nature. Ever since Adam and Eve decided to believe Satan’s lie that God was withholding something from them, mankind has had to struggle with self-concern. It appears that very few if any have won the battle. People try, and we have to laud their attempts, but in the long run self still seems to be the victor
If you have followed my blogs you will be aware that on more than one occasion I have referred to this essential problem. It is helpful to think again about who in fact we are, but also to think of who we might be because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. It was never part of God’s plan for us to work really hard in order to become what we should be as Christian believers. He knew the power of a sinful nature. So he did something to help us arrive where we ought to be, he assigned the Holy Spirit to take up residence in the life of each of us. That is possible because God is infinite, he dwells in the heart of every believer. One thing remains and that is for us to turn to the indwelling Spirit in our times of need. He is ready, willing, and able to help us through every difficult time. He wants to help us become who we are in Christ.
The reason we so often fail is that Satan, while crippled on the cross, is still doing his best to maintain control of our life. He doesn’t give up easily and he is infinitely stronger than any one of us. The answer to our self-concern (the old nature will never change) is in calling on the indwelling Spirit at every moment of trial. He is never too busy to turn down a request. He takes great joy in helping us to live an other-related life. And that is exactly what Jesus taught: To find yourself you must lose yourself. The old nature hates the idea of our trust in God because every time we do, he loses the skirmish.
So when you do a charitable act, just do it. Rejoice in the lack of public approval because that means your reward is posted in heaven.
In Matthew 5.43-48 we come the fifth example of the difference between the “you-have-heard-it-said” point of view and the teaching of Jesus. They had heard that it was good to love their friends, but they should hate their enemies. It is important to note that in earlier days their hatred should not be against other people but against hostile nations. Israel was to actively oppose their national enemies (“Do not leave alive anything that breathes.” Deut. 20:16). Jesus taught that rather than hating one’s enemies his followers are to love them. That is a complete reversal of the former position. What’s more is that love is active concern – the believer is to “pray for those who persecute them” (v. 44). The reason why we are to love our “enemy” is that we may be children of God (v. 45). It’s not a condition for salvation (as suggested by the TEV, “so that you may become children of your Father”) but an appropriate way to demonstrate that we are his children.
By nature God is love. It follows that those who claim to be his children are to love (that is, “bear a family resemblance”). God shows no partiality; he makes the sun shine on bad people just like he does on those who are good; he gives rain to those who do evil as well as to those who do good (v. 45). If you think you deserve a reward for loving those who love you, remember that even tax collectors do that (v. 46). The point is clear – we are to love both friend and enemy. That’s what God does. Since our heavenly Father is perfect, we are to be perfect (v. 48). Before you throw up your hands at the impossibility of such a challenge it’s helpful to know that the Greek teleios means, “to attain the end/purpose.” God does not expect us to be as perfect as he is, but he does expect us to “perfect” (i.e., complete the goal) of become what he intended, and that is to show an active concern for all, both friends and enemies. If God sends rain on the wicked we can at least pray that they will enjoy the good weather.
So let’s accept the challenge of carrying out this expectation that is essential for being a child of God. First we are to love our friends. We can probably agree that this isn’t too hard – but in certain relationships, it sure isn’t easy. By reaching that level we have done nothing more than to stand shoulder to shoulder with the pagans (ck. v. 47 – “even pagans do that”). Now comes the challenge. We are to love those who genuinely dislike us – “hate” us, you might say. Think for a moment about that genuinely crooked businessman who cheated you, the neighbor who won’t speak to you, the family member who has turned against you. Love people like that! Yes. We are to love each one as we love a dear friend. Note, I didn’t say, “have a sentimental feeling toward.” Our charge is to love them, and that means to treat them as God would. He extends the hand of friendship to all who will accept. His desire is to win their affection and that’s for their own sake. Shouldn’t we desire that our enemy have the same opportunity? That is, to accept our love and watch the forces that separates, disappear.
Lex talionis, commonly called “an eye for an eye” is one of the most ancient laws in the world, going back into the Babylonia period. It is based on the principle of limited retaliation. A law court could prescribe a penalty equal to the injury but no more. It was never intended as an opportunity for getting even and then some.
Jesus points to the Old Testament use of the principle (Exod. 21:24) and tells his listeners that while limited retaliation was the acceptable principle in earlier times now that the Kingdom of God is breaking in, retaliation is being replaced with non-retaliation. “You have heard that it was said” marks a new era in which followers of Jesus simply will not retaliate for injury. In Matt, 5:38-42 Jesus provides three examples: If slapped on one cheek, you are to turn the other; if someone wants your suit you are to give him your coat as well; if he forces you to go one mile, go with him for two.” Original context gives a bit of color to the examples. To be hit on the “right check” suggests a backhanded slap (assuming the offended was not left-handed). Rabbis held that such a blow was doubly insulting. A man’s chiton was his under garment (“shirt”) and his himation was his outer garment (“coat”). Jewish law held that no one should be deprived of their coat in that it served as a blanket at night. Ancient armies used to force peasants to carry their gear so what Jesus is saying is that if someone makes you carry something for a mile, carry it for another mile.
We normally understand the principle of non-retaliation on a personal basis, but originally lex talionis was to be carried out in a court of justice. What Jesus is saying is that on a personal basis there is to be no retaliation at all. You don’t slap the slapper or take from the taker. You give the slapper another cheek to slap and you give the shirt thief your coat as well. One might ask, “Do you actually mean what you are saying? If a person demands your clothing would you in fact give him your winter coat as well? What if your children were watching? Would you want them to see such a week-kneed response? The answer is Yes, Yes, and Yes. Then I would do something else; I would point out that my reaction to that little encounter is what Jesus would have done. When I don’t respond in anger I am saying that I choose to live on a higher plain. I would explain that Jesus could have retaliated against those who were mocking him, then abusing him, then killing him, but in the kingdom of God people live by the values of that kingdom. Genuine strength is seen in controlling one’s natural reaction to get even. The higher ethic is not to do what the “old man” would do but to respond as Jesus would. Followers of Jesus act like Jesus.
“You have heard it said that adultery is wrong, but I tell you that if you look at her with desire you have already committed adultery” (Matt. 5:27-28).
The seventh commandment is “Thou shall not commit adultery” (Deut. 5:18). There was no uncertainty about what that meant for the Jewish people. Very simply it meant one thing – Do not commit adultery! Everybody understood. The penalty for both parties is death (Lev. 20:20). When Jesus entered the picture, things began to change. While adultery continued to be wrong, another issue surfaced. Jesus tells his followers that if they even look at a woman with sex on their mind they have committed adultery. The focus has been moved from the act to the preliminary stage of considering it. Simply to look at a women sexually is to commit adultery. At one stage the law served to show the Israelites what they should not do. With Jesus concern goes beyond external conformity to the motivation that brought it about. No longer is it enough simply to not do certain things; what God desires is a transformation of the inner man. In our example it is the “looking with intention” that becomes the sin.
Christ’s desire for us is inner purity not simply outward conformity. Law represents a passing stage in moral development. Jesus says conformity to God’s regulations was not God’s ultimate desire in formulating the Ten Commandments. His desire is that we be like him and that requires purification of the inner person. The laws were designed to show what you should not do; the new morality doesn’t want you to even think about it. The ultimate goal of the Christian faith is Christ-likeness.
I used to think of laws as a form of restriction. They were designed to keep us from doing what we might want to do. They controlled the way we lived. But there is a more positive way of looking at laws, – community and national as well as God’s. A law protects us from the consequence of an unwise decision. The sign, 40 MPH, warns us that should we go faster in this zone we would be liable to have an accident due to the density of traffic. It restricts us only in the sense that we not permitted to harm ourselves. Like a wise parent, God guides us along the road to maturity, taking care that we don’t wander from the path. This requires some signs about not doing certain things that have a high probability of negative results. How gracious of God to help his prodigal sons (all of us) overcome the results of a fallen nature. The next time we find ourselves tempted to – in this case – look again at cleavage on display, may we be aware that in God’s world the imprudent look is the same as the act.