Righteous Relationship – Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18

February 23, 2014 – 7th Sunday after Epiphany

We hear another portion of the Sermon on the Mount this morning in chapter 6. To deliver the sermon, Jesus goes up a mountain, sits down and for his disciples and the crowds who have begun to follow him, paints with words a picture of what God is doing in the world and what God’s people are to be doing in the world. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls that the kingdom of heaven. It’s not in some future time. Jesus says the realm of God–the kingdom of heaven–has arrived. It is here. It’s not something we’re sitting waiting for. It’s something we embrace now. It’s something we live now.

Sometimes we assume what Jesus is teaching and what we read about his ministry in the New Testament is brand new. But it’s not. Rooted in Jewish faith, Jesus reached into the deep roots of the life-giving law–the Torah–to speak about the realm of God and God’s intentions for God’s people and for the world.

So let’s go back to that life-giving law that we find in Leviticus.

Admittedly, “life-giving” is probably not the first association many of us have with the book of Leviticus. “Lots of laws” might be more what we first think about. And then we hear the seemingly impossible. “You shall be holy, for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Last week in the Matthew reading we heard, “Be perfect as God is perfect.” Doesn’t that, by definition, exclude us? Who can be holy like God? Who can be perfect like God?

One strand of theological thinking in the Bible says holiness is what God is and that is distinctly something other than being human.

But there’s also another theological understanding of holiness as something we strive for–looking at the nature of God as our to how we are to live. Leviticus breaks that down in specific, concrete ethical commands. The law we heard in Leviticus commands us to make sure there is food for the poor and the foreigner; commands us not no steal, lie or swear by God’s name. We hear the ethnical command not to exploit our neighbors, to deal fairly with those who work for us and not to make fun of those who are disabled. The law commands us to show no partiality in administering justice, not to stand by when our neighbor is in danger, not to hate or take revenge.

These are concrete, specific directions on how we are to live with others. How we are to live together so that we can all live together (which is what makes the law life-giving). And this is the way we ordinary human being live holy lives—as God is holy. One writer I read this week said, “Holiness in heaven is enacted as justice on earth.”[1] The tangible evidence of our holiness is the just transformation of how we live with others—individually and collectively. Our transformed relationships are how we evidence of holiness.

But now when we turn back to the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus talking about doing things in secret and not letting other people see our righteous or holy actions.

“Righteous” is a better translation for Matthew 6.1 because we tend to have bad associations with the word “piety.” We often connect “piety” with people who are pious and self-righteous which is actually the reverse of what Jesus is instructing here.

In chapter 5, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to God.” (5.14, 16) And if we take the law in Leviticus seriously, then there are particular public actions that we must take in order to be faithful to God.

Now Jesus says “Don’t let anyone see what you are doing.” When you give your offering, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Which might actually be neurologically impossible.) Don’t pray in public he says. Pray in secret in your room with the door closed. (Which would put an end to much of Sunday morning worship.) When you fast, don’t let anyone know.

So which are we to do? Live our faith visibly or secretly? Well, first, we need to recognize parody or hyperbole when we hear it. Jesus is exaggerating the excesses of those who give, pray and fast so other people will look at them. Do you need a brass band to announce your charitable giving? Do you love to pray loudly so people three blocks over will hear and praise you? Do you love fancy, flowery prayers with all kinds of religious buzz words thrown in because you think God will listen more? Do you take pleasure in making yourself look miserable so everyone will know you are giving up something? If so, you’ve already gotten what you’re after: the attention of other people.

When it comes to parody, Jesus could have said, “Turn off all your electronic devices with GPS features and leave them in a drawer. Go into the forest. Hike the most remote trail on a rainy day. Find the largest tree you can find. Climb it until you cannot be seen from the ground. Cover yourself with a tarp. Now pray.” That’s parody. That’s hyperbole.

The point isn’t about the location of where you can pray. The point is who you are praying for. In the forest, on a rainy day, in a tree, off a remote trail, covered by a tarp, the only one who will hear your prayer (or know where you are) is God. That’s the point. Pray that way–whether you are praying in the “quietness of your bedtime, in the middle of rush-hour traffic or in unison [on Sunday morning with the whole] congregation.” [2]

In talking about righteous living, Jesus uses examples his Jewish audience would recognize as significant expressions of Jewish faith: giving money to help others, praying and fasting.

Sometimes we think the Christian faith is primarily about believing certain ideas. And depending on who you talk to, it can be a lot of ideas or a few ideas.

But just like Jewish faith, Christian faith is also about doing certain things. There are actions or practices that are part of being Christian. There are the outward actions of living justly with other people–as we hear about in Leviticus and which Jesus also includes in the Sermon on the Mount. (And we heard some of that in chapter 5 the last two weeks.) There are also actions that help us nurture a life with God that Jesus talks about here: giving, praying and fasting. (And fasting doesn’t have to be just about food. We can fast from anything that distracts us from God.)

All these practices are about relationship. Relationship with others and relationship with God. Last week we heard Jesus talk about the essence of relationships with others and how we live out the reality of life in the realm of God. This week we hear him talk about the essence of relationship with God. These aren’t the only practices that nurture a life with God but they have been three common practices of Jewish and Christian faith.

Give. Pray. Fast.

These are often practices we take on in Lent. Which begins in another week and a half.

Here’s what I often see happen in Lent. We take on or give up something during Lent and then at the end of Lent we say, “Phew! Thank goodness that is over. Now I can get back to life as usual.” Except that that’s not the point. The point is not to muster through Lent and then get back to life as usual. “The practices and experience of Lent are what can shape us for all of our life”[3] writes Episcopal priest Maryetta Anschutz. “Lent is not about feeling holy, but about lifelong commitments that help us hold on to the things that will sustain us.”[4] “This is what Jesus asks his disciples to do. Do not be holy because it is what the world expects of you; rather learn to live holy lives because a closer relationship to the God who sees in secret will be reward enough.”[5]

As we get ready to begin Lent, what might it be that God is inviting you to practice in your relationships with others or to nurture a life with God?

* * *

[1] Walter Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching – Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p148.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p68.
[3] Maryetta Anschutz, “Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p20.
[4] Ibid., p21.
[5] Ibid., p20.


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