Monday, 15 November 2010

A New Relationship with Religion

Matt 6:1-4, 16-19

What does the Sermon on the Mount teach us about life in the kingdom? How would you sum it up?

God’s people by faith in Jesus Christ are called into a kingdom, to live for the kingdom treasuring God and looking to Jesus, it sets up a radical counter culture to the world – be it religious or irreligious - within the world.

That Kingdom living is marked by a greater, more rigorous, more real world righteousness than the religious display(5:21) which strives to please God(48). So it depends on God, it is different from the world, it maximises obedience as a response to grace because God is the believers greatest treasure.

One of the big questions as Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom come and called people to enter it was how should that be lived out? What were the implications for established religious practices? Does the disciple still give, pray and fast or not? And if so how is the kingdom exercise of these different and distinctive from those in Judaism?

Here Jesus establishes a principle(1) and then works through the implications of that on the 3 key areas of Jewish piety, we’ll look at 2 this week and prayer next week.

1. Beware people please God.
What does it mean to ‘be careful’? It means to take care, to beware of a danger, to watch out for something that is potentially harmful, to be alert to something which is a threat or you expect.
Jesus here puts up a warning sign for his disciples because they face a danger, what is it? doing your acts of righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Notice that Jesus is not anti-piety, he is not against acts of righteousness, in fact responding rightly to God means that he assumes that his disciples will be doing them. But how disciples do them, the motives behind them is the issue.

In all three areas, giving, prayer and fasting, he calls them to beware acting like the hypocrites. Originally the hypocrites were actors, those who on stage put on a persona, a character, or a mask before taking it off when they were off stage. It is against this type of double living that Jesus is warning. There is a very real danger for disciples that they play a role in order to gain a good or godly reputation rather than actually treasuring and responding relationally to God. And he says if your motive is to be praised by men then that is all you will get, you will not get any reward from your Father.

Just before we move on to the examples he gives we need to make clear what Jesus means by rewards. In this chapter what is the contrast Jesus makes between two different rewards? Reward from men and reward from God. (3)The reward here is honour from men, it is reputation and standing, it is congratulations and praise. But that is not what the disciple is to want, the disciple doesn’t want themselves to be the centre of attention, to be the one praised, that would be idolatry, rather their treasure is God and that means they seek his glory and his well done, to know God not to be known by men that is the reward.

2. God-ward giving not greed for glory
What assumption does Jesus make about his disciples and giving? (2)That his disciples will be giving to those in need. If disciples are to be those who are perfect as their father in heaven is, if they are to reflect and share the family values then they will have a compassion and a concern for the poor just as God does.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Deut15:11 “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.”

Disciples are to be compassionate to those in need as they reflect the family values. But how are they to do that? Jesus gives them a how not to do it and a contrasting how to do it.

How are they not to do it? With fanfare, in public places and to be seen by and praised and honoured by others.

Instead how are they to do it? Secretly(4) and so that your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing – it’s a curious little phrase isn’t it. The right hand was the active hand, it would undertake the act of giving, but what does it mean for your left hand not to know. I think Jesus is underscoring the point about secrecy, but I wonder if he isn’t also making another point we are not to make much of our giving to ourselves. We are not only to keep our giving private from others but we are not to dwell on what we give and become proud within ourselves, it is not just a reputation with others that can be dangerous.

Disciples will give to alleviate need, they will be open handed and generous because God is their treasure and they share the family values and they will seek reward from God not man. They will give and forget what they have given, aware that they give only as a small response to what God have given them in Jesus, and that they are merely stewards of everything they have which God has given them.

We live in a world that champions givers, that emblazons their names on things, that names hospital wings after them, even at the Keepmoat you could pay £10 for a brick and have your name engraved on it so you had helped to build the new stadium. But not the disciple, the disciple gives not to be noticed, not so they get a reputation, not even so they can feel good or less guilty themselves but because they have the Fathers DNA – they love the fatherless and the widow. And they live to seek God, to please God and to glorify God.

2. Father focused not futile fasting
Again the assumption is what? That disciples will be fasting, elsewhere Jesus confirms this when asked why his disciples don’t fast Jesus doesn’t say it is wrong to or they won’t but says they don’t right now because he is with them but that when he is gone they will fast. Disciples are to fast, but it is how disciples fast that mark them out as distinctive.

For the hypocrites fasting had become a way to display their piety (16)so they made sure people knew they were fasting, they wore the pained expression as a badge of supposed righteousness. The irony is that they are taking and twisting fasting, fasting was a way of expressing sorrow for sin, of focusing on God, of seeking God’s guidance and help, or of focusing on prayer. Fasting was all about God and our relationship with God. But the hypocrites have taken it and twisted it so that what was designed to be god-ward is now man-ward. It becomes a tool not for seeking God but for seeking to increase their own reputation. And says Jesus what is done to get man’s praise will only get man’s praise.

By contrast what does Jesus say the disciple is to do? They are to dress and act in such a way that no one but God knows they are fasting, it is to be done in secret. It is to be done to facilitate and seek after relationship with God not be merely a function of religion. Fasting is an action that shows God is our greatest treasure and we are seeking his kingdom and it is those who seek such that God will reward with just those things.

The kingdom does not throw out acts of piety, they are not old hat but it transforms them so that they are God centred not man centred. They are relational realities for the disciples not religious rigmaroles. The disciple treasures God above all and that shows in their seeking after God and displaying God’s character, seeking his well done, and living for his glory.

In groups:
1. What are the badges of spirituality we are tempted to wear to be thought Godly or praised by others?
2. Is it right for us to hold a day of prayer and fasting in our churches? Why or why not?
3. Is Jesus contradicting himself? In 5:16 he says we are to let our light shine before others, whilst here he says we are to act secretly. How would you explain this to someone?

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