“They haven’t found their rhythm yet” is a phrase used by sportscasters covering a live contest when a player isn’t playing up to their potential; when they can’t seem to “get in the groove.” In the first segment of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus encouraged us to “sync up” with God’s perfect will. Until then we’ll struggle to make much difference. Thus the 5th chapter of Matthew is unquestionably one of the most important in the Bible. It’s so profound I devoted 13 essays to exploring the life-improving wisdom it contains. I learned a lot and the study has changed me for the better. My Savior’s instructions have helped me “find my rhythm” in my Heavenly Father’s master plan. Dallas Willard wrote, “One is blessed, we now know, if one’s life is based upon acceptance and intimate interactions with what God is doing in human history. Such people are in the present kingdom of the heavens.” Christ told us if we’re fixated on spending all our energy making sure we stay in strict compliance with God’s laws we’re most likely missing the point. Jesus wants us to grasp that, if we’ll relax and allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to transform our “worldly heart” into a “kingdom heart”, then obedience to God’s Commandments will come as naturally as breathing. For Jesus it’s always about us getting our heart in tune with God.
Now, Matthew 6 won’t take nearly as long to cover because, in light of what He’d just been preaching, Jesus then simply needed to warn us about getting carried away with how good we might start thinking we are. We’re all susceptible to letting our egos run wild; to start expecting folks to esteem us and for God to bless us with an abundance of material wealth – all due to our impressive righteousness. Pride’s the fly in the ointment of good intentions and that sentiment resounds throughout the entire New Testament. “How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) and “Now the Pharisees were lovers of money, and when they heard Jesus’ teachings they scoffed at him. But he responded: ‘You try to look good in the eyes of men. But God sees your hearts. And what men think highly of is a stench before God” (Luke 16:14-15) are just two examples. It wasn’t Jesus’ fault the Pharisees and religious leaders had made themselves easy targets for criticism. Thus everyone knew instantly who He was referring to when He continued His sermon with, “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Again, it’s vital to note what our Lord didn’t say. He didn’t teach we’re to go to extremes making sure our good deeds are completely hidden from sight. That’s not the core issue at stake. What He wanted to convey was that we shouldn’t perform good deeds with receiving public praise or even a private “thank you” being the primary motive behind our doing them. When we do that we’re guilty of preferring human approval over God’s. The apostle Paul expanded on this theme later on when he advised, “…Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. …Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ” (Galatians 3:17 & 23-24). As usual, our Savior offered several helpful illustrations:
He brought up giving to philanthropic organizations. “…Whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2). It’s difficult to imagine someone paying to have a horn section alert everybody so they’d witness their awesome generosity but the Jewish bigwigs did so regularly. Interesting to note that Jesus used the descriptive term “hypocrite” 17 times in the Gospel accounts. In each instance it was to distinguish the mask one displays to the world from one’s real face God sees constantly. Jesus next told us, “But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (6:3-4). Taken literally this is impossible so it’s clear Christ was employing a metaphor to get us to probe deeper. If we have a totally transformed “kingdom heart” we won’t need to be mindful of what our hands are doing because performing good deeds will be as automatic as blinking. Not only that but He assures us our Heavenly Father does pay attention to what we do. Then Jesus added, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (6:5-6). I don’t know about you but I detect a significant pattern emerging from these verses concerning rewards. God does play fair, it seems. Christ is also telling us we shouldn’t give a hoot about whether others are aware of our prayer routine or not; that our private time with God should be the most intimate thing we engage in.
What Jesus preached next I find immensely informative and enlightening. He said, “When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (6:7-8). (He follows this with what we reverently call the Lord’s Prayer but it deserves its own essay to be presented down the line.) What Jesus warned against brings to my mind the Islamic congregational prayers known as salaat required to be offered to Allah five times daily by all Muslims. According to the Muslim-turned-Christian author Nabeel Qureshi, “For the vast majority of Muslims, it is simply an act of duty, not personal or heartfelt expression.” Look, I’m not condemning that practice any more than Jesus would. Our Savior never said public prayer was a bad thing at all. He only said God isn’t impressed by repetition of memorized phrases. He wants more than that. He wants us to be real. Willard wrote, “Kingdom praying and its efficacy is entirely a matter of the innermost heart’s being totally open and honest before God. …In apprenticeship to Jesus, this is one of the most important things we learn how to do. He teaches us how to be in prayer what we are in life and how to be in life what we are in prayer.” Jesus then went on to include fasting alongside charitable giving and praying as things we should refrain from trying to make public spectacles of. He said, “When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (6:16-18). Our Lord’s fundamental message of remaining humble certainly was a consistent one!
Jesus was urging all believers to willingly adopt a discipline of subtle discretion in every area of their spiritual life. However, some critics are too eager to claim that here His inconsistency is showing because of what went down earlier when He preached, “…Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But the underlying context permeating the entire sermon from front to back is the condition of a person’s heart, not whether or not they’re in violation of some kind of divine law. If our heart’s in the right place everything we do will be done for the glory of God and never for our own glory. This school of thought also spills over into the somewhat precarious state the modern-day Body of Christ finds itself in. There’s a genuine danger that churches can become so preoccupied with what the secular world thinks about what they stand for that they neglect to put obeying God first. Willard wrote, “Whatever our position in life, if our lives and works are to be of the kingdom of God, we must not have human approval as a primary or even major aim. We must lovingly allow people to think whatever they will. …We can only serve them by serving the Lord only.”
Jesus then segues into some frank talk concerning the figurative chains that wealth binds us in. He preached, “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). Yep, there’s that reference to one’s heart condition again. So how do we go about accumulating treasures in heaven? By generously investing our time and efforts in diligently nurturing our ever-growing relationship with Christ, that’s how. It’s correct to say that none of what Jesus challenges each of us to strive to be is attainable without keeping our eyes firmly focused on Him. As He said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing” (John 15:5). No matter the translation, nothing means nothing, folks. What Paul expressed is relevant to Jesus’ “rewards program”, too. “For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7-9).
We all know what happens if we attempt to do something noble and our heart just ain’t in it. The results are predictably far from spectacular. In fact, they can be downright deadly. Say what? Hey, that’s what Christ was alluding to (via exaggeration, of course) when He preached, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:22-23). It was His way of saying if our heart’s wholly infatuated with amassing material things that belong exclusively to this fallen world we’ll have nothing of value to offer to God or to our fellow man. Our soul will darken and we’ll eventually lose our way. Some don’t believe it. They insist they can adroitly balance their worldly and heavenly treasures, thank you very much. Jesus disagrees. He announced, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (6:24). Recall that our God is jealous of our allegiance. Test Him at your own peril.
Jesus then takes on something we all have in common – the burdensome “worry virus.” Some are plagued by it more than others but we all must deal with it to a certain degree. We often get so wrapped up in mentally projecting all the “what ifs” that can happen to us or our loved ones we can turn into paranoid mice. Christ said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing?” (6:25). He then directed the crowd’s attention to the beautiful birds and gorgeous wild flowers that thrive without humans having to do anything for them whatsoever. Notice He didn’t say God’s some kind of cosmic butler who’ll wait on us hand and foot. In fact if you’ve ever observed bird behavior you’ve seen they always stay hard at work performing one task or another. They’re anything but lazy. So what Jesus was trying to get across to us is that our Father in heaven is in no way a codependent enabler. He is a reliable safety net, though, because, after all, we’re a lot more important to Him than any bird will ever be. Jesus then tosses in a big dose of logic with “…Which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life?” (6:27). It was true then and true today. It’s a matter of trust. If a Christian has it and reinforces it by letting the Holy Spirit continue to transform their heart and mind daily they’ll know for certain that God will see to their basic needs without fail. Faith is the antidote that kills worry.
Those who think Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor have overlooked how he summed up this middle portion of His Sermon on the Mount. He probably grinned and winked as He preached, “So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (6:34). If a person lives long enough they’ll realize harboring unfounded anxiety over “what might happen” is a huge waste of time. Worry doesn’t prevent anything. What Christ wanted us to savvy regarding this phase of His discourse was that when we trust in shallow things (like human approval or material wealth) we’re bound to be disappointed. Therefore we must jettison worry the second it shows up and instead look toward the future with unwavering confidence and on the past behind with sincere gratitude. Paul “got it” better than most. He wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). i.e., when in doubt, give it to God.