We could talk a lot more about the remainder of Jesus’ …but I say to you… statements, but we want to move on into a few more things in the next chapter. So instead, what I’ll do is to continue my Shovelation of Matthew 5.
Those who would convince you that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, they are the ones who have been actively working to undo it. Just like their fathers, they carry on traditions designed to get around the laws they tell you to keep. They have told you how your forefathers received the Law through Moses, and that they were specifically told “You shall not commit murder.” Of course, they also made sure to tell you how the murderer would have to stand before the court to account for his crime. But I tell you that these men who continue to walk in the ways of their fathers will hold you accountable for being angry with your brother. And the same ones who approve of the evil deeds of their fathers will make you stand before their highest court simply for calling your brother a good-for-nothing. Moreover, the very ones who will stop at nothing to keep their exalted positions will condemn you and have your bodies thrown into the fire pits of Gehenna just because you called someone a fool. And so I tell you that if your conscience is stirred while you are waiting to present your offering before the altar and you remember that your brother has enough evidence to haul you before the court, leave your offering at the altar and immediately go and patch things up with your brother. Then you can come back and present your offering. God may be patient, but you know that men are not. If you are being taken to court, settle things quickly before the matter is presented before the judge, because once the judge hands you over to the officer and you are thrown into prison, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
From the same men who work so hard at getting around the Law, you have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I’m telling you that everyone — including any of your respectable teachers — who simply looks at a woman with lust for her has already done the deed with her in his heart. Therefore, those of you who subscribe to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees should take the logical course of action. For if you are committing adultery with your right eye, you should rip it out of its socket and throw it away from you; for it would be better to lose only a part of your body, than for you to eventually carry out the lustful desires of your heart causing you to fall into their judgment through which your whole body is cast into the fire pits of Gehenna. And if you are committing adultery with your right hand, you should cut it off and thrown it away; for again, it would be better for you to lose only a part of your body, than for you to follow up on the lustful desires of your hand so that your whole body ends up in the fire pits of Gehenna. Furthermore, to those who claim to be clean regarding the law of adultery based upon the Scripture, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce,” I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife forces her into committing adultery … unless, of course, the reason she was put away was that she was unfaithful. And then, legally, you who have kept yourselves sexually pure but then marry a divorced woman also commit adultery.
Again, those who say that I have come to nullify the Law are the ones who have told you the story of how your ancestors were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say that for all their posturing and holy-sounding promises, men are still able to get around them. What rationale is there in swearing by heaven, which is God’s throne, or by earth, which is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, which is the city of the great king? Why call upon the things of God as witnesses to a promise you will later regret and legally seek to abandon? It’s worthless to swear by your own head, as well, for you can’t change even a single hair from white to black. Let your word yes be yes, and your word no be no. Anything beyond these comes from the domain of evil.
You have heard from those who have persecuted the righteous that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say that rather than sticking up for your legal rights and seeking revenge for every wrong, do not take your stand against an evil person. I submit that the life of God reveals itself in thing like these: If anyone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give him your coat as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have also heard from those who truly have no love for you that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say that if you want to be like God, you will love your enemies and pray for those who do you wrong. After all, he is the one who causes his sun to rise on both evil and good, and he is the one who sends rain upon both righteous and unrighteous. If you only love those who love you, what reward is there in that? Don’t the people you despise do the same? If you only greet those who belong to your group, how are you any different from those you hate? Therefore, unlike those who stand in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall be complete and whole, as your heavenly father is complete and whole.
I’m sure some will assume that my choice of “complete and whole” is an attempt to change the meaning of “perfect,” but I suggest that it expresses a more accurate meaning. The Greek word for this is τέλειος, and it actually means “complete” or “brought to its end” or “finished” or “perfect.” It’s not that using the word perfect is bad, rather it’s more that we have come to regard it only as expressing a legal or technical perfection. And the truth was that Jesus made a clear case against the measured perfection of the scribes and Pharisees. Anyhow, let’s move on from here into Matthew chapter 6 and see how Jesus continues on with his expose of the religious kind of righteousness many of us have learned in this world. Yeah, I’m talking about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4 (NASB)
If you’ll keep in mind that Jesus spoke to those who were under the Law, you’ll get a proper sense of what he was saying. I’m not suggesting that we can’t understand it — for we most certainly do — however, we need to realize why we have come to understand it in such a guilt-ridden manner. How we might read this can be far more severe for us than it was for them. Why? Because for them, they were being offered hope in the coming deliverance of Christ; but for us, we are being pulled back into a hopelessness that has found disappointment in the deliverance they were looking forward to.
Can you say that another way?
Because we don’t see ourselves as really having received the promise of the very thing they were pinning their hopes to, we end up assuming that we are missing whatever it was that gave them hope. And so we end up trying to live according to these supposed new laws of Christianity. And in looking at a principle that starts out, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…” we firstly assume that we’re supposed to be practicing our righteousness. Then we assume that we’re just not supposed to do it the way others do, because if we don’t do it the right way we won’t be rewarded by God.
You see, this makes complete sense within the perception of the natural, religious mind, which means that, if it appeals to you, that knowledge comes through the same elementary understanding of God you and I learned in this world. And that is how they were hearing Jesus’ words, for they were as children who need to be constantly monitored. We are now to understand these words as those who have been delivered from that bondage, having had an intimate knowledge of its working.
The whole idea of being rewarded by God for one’s humble service is an obsession of the self-righteous religious mind. While millions of religious Christians the world over have been kept in line with the prospect of building up rewards based upon the principle found in the Sermon on the Mount, it has at the same time created some dilemmas in the religious setting. For example, how does one give in secret when the plate is being passed in the open? or when the check is cashed? or when the PayPal account is opened? After all, if one gives in secret, but somebody finds out … is the reward blown? However, I don’t think our dilemmas have anything to do with what Jesus was talking about. Instead, it was meant to reveal the driving force behind the religious mind of fleshly men: the approval of man. And as Jesus stated, those who did their good deeds to be noticed by men had already received their reward by the praise bestowed upon them.
Don’t misunderstand me, for it is a truth that God rewards in secret, but it is only in Christ we can truly understand what it is to find confidence in him, and in him alone. However, the fleshly mind does in fact understand the principle of doing good things anonymously, but those who try to follow that principle will only build up resentment for not receiving credit. The natural mind is tricky, and it will find a way to make sure its anonymous gift is somehow known. It will also make a huge pretense of humility in the discovery; religion loves to captitalize on this.
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6 (NASB)
Now, I’m not going to suggest that everyone who stands and prays in the church is being a hypocrite, but doesn’t it seem that some are putting on a show? I remember hearing reports of great prayer warriors who were regarded as powerful men of faith that I envied their spirituality. I’ve also heard quite a few prayers from people who seemed to be working their way in that direction. I tried getting there, and believe me, I would have loved being thought of as a prayer warrior, but I just couldn’t get myself into it without feeling as if I had to do a lot of pretending.
But then, what about that prayer closet Jesus spoke of? Are we really supposed to have a special room in our house for that? The way some Christians talk about it, the presence or absence of a prayer closet in your house reveals your level of spirituality. Of course, if we got past our own modern-day perceptions, we might have to wonder: Did the people Jesus speak to even able to have any kind of an extra room in their houses to set aside for a secret prayer time? Perhaps we’ve missed the point Jesus made, for it would have had nothing to do with setting up some kind of a secret room where everybody would know what you’re doing when you went in there. And of course, if nobody sees you go into your prayer closet, you could make sure everybody knows you have one simply by speaking of its importance … or maybe by teaching a Bible study or preaching a sermon on it. Despite the air of humility, the way some Christians talk about prayer closets make them almost as public as standing and praying in the synagogues and on the street corners.
So, what do I suggest as being the point Jesus made? Simply that calling attention to your prayer life is just another way the fleshly mind of religious man calls attention to itself. I read somewhere that the inner room may have referred to the outer robes worn by the Jews that were often pulled over their heads. In other words, they could be walking along praying to God without anyone knowing because they were alone even in the midst of a crowd. However you want to see it, the picture is one of contrast, and it’s between a performance before men and a confidence in God alone. In modern-day Christianity, we’ve gotten used to a performance-based concept of prayer, even when we’re trying to do it in secret.
You know what? The people who were there that day could not understand this proposition of confidence as those of you who are in Christ can. At best, they could only understand it as a shadow reality. Mostly, what they would have recognized was the hypocrisy of their religious leaders, and they probably got a little self-righteous about that.
Let’s consider how Jesus followed that up:
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Matthew 6:7-8 (NASB)
When I was in Bible College, I learned about meaningless repetition in the prayers offered by the Gentiles, and there are numerous examples of such prayers throughout the world’s religions, as well as in a few Biblical passages. We could spot this kind of prayer based upon the repetitive sounds made by those who uttered their mantras. But what does Jesus suggest as causing one’s prayer to be repetitively meaningless? Is it just because certain phrases are uttered over and over again … or is there something that underrides it? Take a look at the phrase, “…for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” You see, there is a reason why we people approach God with repetition, and it’s because we don’t believe he actually knows or hears or cares unless we get his attention. Sure, it’s easy for us more civilized people to spot the endless repetition in the prayers of other religious cultures, but let’s face it, Christians have been offering up the same requests over and over again with the same intensity as any pagan. How many times have you come before God under the assumption that he really doesn’t understand what you’re asking him unless he can be made to understand the situation? And that leads me to the next thing Jesus said about prayer, for it comes in the form of an example:
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:9-13 (NASB)
And yes, I left off the familiar ending …for Thine is the kingdom… because it’s pretty much recognized as having been added later. Anyhow, do you know what sticks out the most to me about this example of prayer? Its brevity. Yeah, it only takes 20 seconds to say it. 30, if you drag it out. That’s a huge contrast to the endless prayers of those who think many words will finally get through to God. But there’s no meaningless repetition in this short prayer … well, except for the fact that this one specific prayer has been mindlessly repeated perhaps more than any other prayer in the world. And somehow, I doubt Jesus meant to establish this exact prayer to be repeated over and over and over. Because it’s so short, many Christian leaders use it as a good starting place or a bare-bones pattern to launch into some really loooong spiritual prayers. I have to wonder how much of that kind of prayer stems from desperation rather than the kind of confidence Jesus referred to.
Now, I know the part that can eat our lunch is the part at the end, you know, the stuff about being forgiven by God as we forgive others. It’s like, why did he have to add that? I mean, aren’t we already forgiven because of what Jesus Christ did by dying for sins? Of course, I can give you a very short and simple answer of yes, because it is true, but you’ve already heard somebody tell you that before, haven’t you? And yet you still sometimes wonder if what Jesus said about the conditional status of forgiveness might actually apply to you … because you know there are some people you haven’t or maybe won’t forgive … isn’t that right?
Let me tell you what I’m not going to tell you, which is that I’m not going to try to make you feel better about any lack of forgiveness on your part. And you want to know why? Because that would be playing into your fleshly perceptions. Look, too many grace teachers try way too hard to give feel-good grace answers to fleshly questions, but the truth is that there are no real answers to fleshly logic other than death. And I want you to pay attention to how Jesus did exactly that with Israel.