Monday, August 24, 2009

Matthew 6:1–4

Matthew 6:1–4 (ESV) : Don’t do good deeds just to be seen by others

Synopsis

We have moved from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6, but Jesus is still continuing on with the sermon that he has been giving for the last few passages. In this passage, he touches on how acts of righteousness should be performed, specifically focusing on giving to the poor as a concrete example of his lesson.

And the “how” is very simple: When you do something good—such as giving to the poor—you should not do it in such a way that others will see. If you make a big deal about the fact that you’re giving—“Look at me! Look at me! I’m giving to the poor!”—then you’ve already got your reward, but if you give in secret, not seeking any kind of reward here on earth, then the Father will reward you for that.

Thoughts

My first thought is that I disagree with the people who put the section headings in the ESV and NIV versions of the Bible. In both cases, they titled this section “Giving to the Needy,” but that’s not really what this passage is about. The focus of this passage isn’t on giving to the needy, and in fact Jesus simply takes it for granted that believers will be giving to the needy. The focus is instead on how it should be done. (In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “give to the needy,” he’s saying, “when you give to the needy—because you will, if you’re a believer—this is how you should do it.”) I liked the title in the NKJV better, which is “Do Good to Please God.”

Of course, this is a good time to remind my readers that these section headings are not actually part of the Bible; they’re added on top of the text of the Bible in order to help you understand what the different sections are about, but they’re not actually part of the inspired Word of God. (For that matter, neither are the chapter or verse numbers, although those are standardized across all translations of the Bible.) If you ever read the beginning section of your Bible, before Genesis—the Preface or Introduction or something—they’ll probably make that clear.

There are a lot of people who would disagree with this passage. (Well, there are people who will disagree with everything Jesus said, but I mean even devout Christians who would disagree with this passage.) There is a very prevalent notion among Christians that it’s good to give in public, to set an example for others. I assume they would argue that if you’re giving in public for the right reasons it’s okay. And yet… Jesus doesn’t promote that idea. He could have told us that when we give in public we need to be careful about our motives, but he didn’t; he simply told us not to give in public. We obviously didn’t get the message, though, because I will often walk into a church where there will be little plaques on certain pews, saying “This pew donated by so and so,” or, “this offering table donated in memory of so and so,” or that type of thing. Maybe the “in memory of” thing I can get behind, but I really can’t reconcile “this thing donated by so and so” with Biblical principles. It’s exactly what Jesus was telling us not to do. (And I’m not even necessarily as annoyed with the givers as I am with the church leaders who decided to accept that gift, and put up the plaque. Shouldn’t a pastor or elder have stepped in at some point, and said, “this doesn’t follow Biblical principles, and we’re not going to do it at our church”?)

That being said, though, Jesus talks about giving “in secret” (verse 4 (ESV) ), which may not always be possible. For example, if you’re walking down the street, and give some money to a homeless person, that person will know that you’ve given them the money; I think this is okay, if your attitude is correct. In other words, that you’re giving for the right reason: Because it’s right to give to the poor, and not so that you will be thanked by the person. This is sort of giving in as private a way as you can, under the circumstances. I don’t think that Jesus would want us to use this passage as an excuse not to give to the poor; “I can’t give money to that guy because if I do he’ll see me, and it won’t be in secret.”

I have also, in the past, struggled with how this passage relates to giving at church. When put our money in the collection plate, should we give anonymously, and simply forgo the tax credits that the government gives us in Canada? (And would it be so bad, to forgo those tax credits? But of course that would open up a whole other discussion about giving, and how we should treat those tax credits.) I’m not sure how most churches handle giving, but it’s probably similar to how it’s done at our church, where we’ve made it as anonymous as possible: when you give, you have a numbered envelope, and the only person who would ever know how much you’ve given is the church secretary, who prints out the tax receipts each year. We also have a “benevolent offering,” which goes toward helping the poor, and that is completely anonymous (meaning there’s no tax receipt for it), unless others happen to see what you’re putting in the collection plate. (Speaking of which, based on this passage I think it’s pretty clear that you should not be making pains to get noticed by your neighbours, when you drop your money in the collection plate!)

I haven’t really come to a conclusion about this point about church giving; I used to do it one way, and then switched to doing it the other way. (By “one way” and “the other way” I mean whether I used the numbered envelopes for giving, or gave anonymously—but I’m not saying which way I used to do it, and which way I switched to.) So I’m definitely not advocating that you should forgo the tax credits, and only give anonymously. But it is worth a thought, I think, even if the conclusion is that you’re fine doing it the way you’re doing it.

After all, the point isn’t to become a modern-day Pharisee, and turn Jesus’ teachings into the new rules that we slavishly follow. It’s to examine your heart, and question your motives. There are always aspects of our lives that can be improved, even if giving doesn’t happen to be your particular issue.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Matthew 5:43–48

Matthew 5:43–48 (ESV) : Love Your Enemies

Synopsis

In a continuation of the sermon Jesus has been giving for the last few passages, he now instructs the Israelites (and us) to love our enemies. He tells his listeners that even though they have heard it said that we should love our neighbour and hate our enemy, that is not actually the case—he says that we should actually love our enemies, too, and pray for those who persecute us.

And why?

… so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (verse 45 (ESV) )

Further to this, Jesus asks what good we’re doing if we only love those who love us back—everyone does that! Christians are supposed to be different; we’re supposed to be better than that. In fact, according to verse 48 (ESV) , we are to be perfect—as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Thoughts

In some cases, Jesus is starting his points by saying, “you have heard that it was said,” and then correcting a misconception with the way a believer really should behave. Usually he’s quoting something from the Old Testament, and then illustrating how people have been misinterpreting what was really said. In this case, though, when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” he’s not quoting the Old Testament—the command for people to hate their enemies is not there. The ESV Study Bible posits that the Israelites had probably overgeneralized God’s hatred of evil into a commandment to hate their enemies; I wonder if Jesus is just addressing what seems like common sense (to the Israelites and to everyone else). Of course you should hate your enemies—after all, they hate you. Right?

But no. Jesus instructs us that we are actually to love everyone—those who love us back, as well as those who are our enemies. (I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that we should also love people who neither love us nor hate us, but are just “there.”)

And Jesus’ reasoning, as to why we should love our enemies, is interesting. He says that we should do it so that we should be sons of our Father—and then he reminds us that the Father takes care of both the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. When Jesus says this, he’s not just being poetic, he’s making a point: We’re supposed to be like God. God loved us, even though we were His enemies. He loved us enough to send His Son to die for us; if He hadn’t we could never have escaped His wrath. We didn’t love Him. We hated His ways. We wanted to be our own gods. But He loved us anyway—and we should be thankful that He did!

And how should we be thankful? One manifestation of that should be our love for our enemies; it should be one of the ways that we’re conformed to His image. Jesus gives us a commandment that no human has ever lived out, except for himself:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (verse 48 (ESV) )

Perfect?!? I’m not even good—I’m a far cry from being perfect! But Jesus says that I must be perfect; how can that be? The whole theme of this passage is not really about us at all; it’s about God, and what He has done. When my earthly life is over, and I stand before Him, he won’t see my sin; Jesus has taken that upon himself. He’ll see Jesus’ perfection, which has been granted to me through his death. When I stand before God, it will be as if I am perfect—as my heavenly Father is perfect.

That’s not to say that this passage is only about final judgement; obviously this Grace should flow over into my day-to-day life, as well. Because of God’s undeserved love for me, and because He is making me more and more like Himself day by day, I should also be loving my enemies.