The Sermon on the Mount: A Message for Jesus’ Disciples- Part 2

In my last blog about the Sermon on the Mount, I highlighted a few important details from Matthew 5:

• The context of Matthew 5-7 is Jesus speaking to His disciples (more than the chosen 12)
• Jesus is not changing the Law. Jesus is God. He understands the Law better than anyone else. Following the Law isn’t just about following the letter, but about paying attention to one’s motives.
• Jesus instructs His followers to be different from the world which includes being different from the religious leaders of His day. They may appear righteous, but their actions do not honor God.
• Disciples are called to be in the world as lights to the nations.

In Matthew 6, Jesus continues His teaching with a warning:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” ~ Matthew 6:1 (NASB)

He further explains how His disciples are supposed to be different from religious hypocrites by using three examples: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus initially instructs His disciples about what not to do. When someone gives to the poor, he shouldn’t make a spectacle of it (Matt. 6:2). What would be a person’s motive for doing so? To be honored by men. Jesus explains that since he wants to be honored by men, he already has his reward- an instant, temporary, human-centered reward. In contrast, Jesus conveys that one’s giving should be done in secret, and in this case, it is the Father who sees and gives a reward. It may not be an instant reward, but it is eternal and God-centered. What is this person’s motive for acting in secret? To honor God.

Sometimes I think there’s too much of a spectacle made with giving. Maybe we feel like we have to share what we’ve done for God so that people will know that we’re being good Christians. The Pharisees acted this way, and Jesus was not pleased with them (that’s putting it lightly). It doesn’t matter if anyone else knows what we’ve given because the Father does. He knows our actions and motivations. Our reward either comes from Him or from man. Not all sharing is bad, but it’s important to ask ourselves, “What’s my motive in sharing this information or presenting my gift in this way? Does it honor God? Do I feel like I have to give an account of my actions in order to be perceived a certain way?”

The next example is about prayer. Jesus tells His disciples to not be like the hypocrites who stand in obvious places to be heard and seen by men when they pray. Again, some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day liked to make themselves known (and maybe not just back then…). Jesus demonstrates the importance of one’s motivation and humility in prayer in Luke 18:10-14:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In Matthew 6:6 Jesus instructs His disciples to go pray in secret. The Father sees what is done in secret, and He will give a reward. Is it wrong to pray in a group setting? No, I don’t believe so. But no one should make a spectacle of himself, for he is only exalting himself, not God. Jesus not only makes an example of the Pharisees and scribes, but also of the Gentiles. He conveys to His disciples that they shouldn’t pray with meaningless repetition like the Gentiles in order to be heard by God. And this is the beautiful reason why: “for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8).

I wrote a paper for one of my Greek courses about this particular passage. One of the questions I researched was “What does ‘use meaningless repetition’ mean, and why is it significant for the context of prayer in Matthew 6? Georg Strecker provides a concise, clear explanation that I believe fits with the context:

“In the present context, the verb (the Greek verb for ‘use meaningless repetition’) is characterized by πολυλογίᾳ (many words), so that the NEB translation ‘go babbling on’ is appropriate. The point is that the Gentile practice of prayer is characterized by garrulous speech. Exactly what is covered thereby can only be guessed: perhaps the recitation of countless names of the ancient pantheon or incantation formulas that turn prayer into a magical art with which one seeks to control the deity. In any case, our example presupposes that the many petitionary words of the Gentiles are brought forth out of uncertainty as to whether one’s prayer will be heard at all. Contrasted with this is the confidence of the believing community: anyone who places his trust in the power and goodness of God knows that the heavenly Father cares for his children beyond all asking and understanding. Such trust is the right presupposition for praying the Lord’s Prayer.” (Words in parentheses added for explanation)

Jesus is telling His disciples to trust in the Father and to honor Him by not exalting themselves. They should also have confidence that He hears them when they pray because He already knows what they need. Sounds so simple, right? We don’t need to repeat words and phrases over and over to be more spiritual or for God to hear us. If we are in right-standing with Him, He hears as soon as we say, “Father…” This is why Jesus provides what we have named the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a simple prayer that recognizes who the Father is, addresses the importance of His (not our) will being carried out, demonstrates confidence that the Lord will provide what we need, and indicates the necessity of asking the Lord for forgiveness whenever we pray. In the context of this prayer Jesus also warns that if we do not forgive others, the Lord will not forgive us. We have all been shown God’s grace and mercy. To receive that from the Lord but not offer it to another person is unacceptable to God.

The final example is fasting. There are a number of different views, books, programs, etc. on fasting. One teaching I have held onto about fasting is that no one should know I am fasting except the people that absolutely have to know. Jesus teaches that His disciples should not make it appear as though they are fasting. Some of the religious leaders in His day would change their demeanor and appearance to demonstrate their fasting to others. As with almsgiving and prayer, such people already receive their reward from men, not God. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples should clean themselves up and make an effort to not look like they’re fasting. Again, what is done is secret is noticed by the Father, and He will give a reward.

After reading through these three examples, I believe Jesus’ teaching can be summed up in two commands: 1) Honor God and 2) Trust Him.

To drive these points home even further, Jesus says in vv. 19-21:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I don’t believe these verses represent a new thought, but rather, a continuation from what Jesus has already been teaching. What is important to us? Earthly, temporary treasures or heavenly, eternal ones? Who is more important to us? People and their approval, or the Father and His approval? And as Jesus conveys in vv. 22-23, are we full of light or darkness? Even if there’s a little darkness, then we’re full of darkness! There is no middle ground with Jesus. We either serve God or the world, which is where v. 24 comes in:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” ~ Matt. 6:24

This passage isn’t saying that having wealth is bad despite what some people might teach. What it is saying is that we can only serve one or the other. Wealth should not dominate our lives. Our service is to God, and vv. 25-34 explain that if we choose to serve the Lord, He will take care of our needs. This coincides with Jesus’ teaching in v. 8 about having confidence in the Father. There’s no need to place wealth or anything else above God in order to survive this life. Rather, the Father should come first because He already knows what we need! Think about Jesus’ disciples. Many of them have left their livelihoods at this point (We learn about this when Jesus calls the chosen 12). It seems like they’re getting worried about how to live, but Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (v. 26). He further shares that God clothes the grass of the field even though it is so quickly destroyed. Will He not take care of us even more so? Therefore, we should not worry about food, drink, or clothing. Jesus explains that the Gentiles (or the world) seek these same things, but the Father already knows we need them. That’s three times now that Jesus’ disciples have been reassured of the Father’s provisions if–and here’s the caveat–they “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (v. 33). This verse refers back to everything Jesus just said. What kind of righteousness will we practice (Matt. 6:1-23)? Who will we serve (v. 24)? Will we seek God’s kingdom or the kingdom of this world for temporary gain?

As disciples, we will go through trials. There will be times when everything seems hopeless. But if we take to heart and practice Jesus’ simple instructions, we have nothing to fear. Our trust is in the Lord; therefore we should not worry about tomorrow (v. 34).

After reading Jesus’ teaching to His disciples so far, we may want to ask ourselves the following:

• What is my motive for doing _________?
• Am I honoring God or myself with my actions?
• Am I confident that the Lord hears me?
• Am I willing to trust God to take care of my needs?
• Is there anything keeping me from seeking the Lord’s kingdom and His righteousness?
• Am I trying to serve two masters?

More lessons and questions to come from Matthew 7.

©Lauren Heiligenthal