Teaching from the Summit

Scriptures: Matthew 4:1-11; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Let us pray:

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be for you a holy offering, even as you guide and teach us your way of everlasting. Amen.

I would like to examine both the Ash Wednesday passage and today’s lesson where Jesus is tempted in the wilderness from the Gospel of Matthew; as we do, I would invite you to hold up a mental newspaper next to the scriptures. Here are some example thoughts from Presbyterian Outlook columnist Jill Duffield:

“A quick glance at the headlines reveals our habitual practice of giving in to … temptation…. Think about the statistics on the distribution of wealth (or lack thereof). Consider the rhetoric about building walls, deporting illegal immigrants and keeping out refugees. Ponder the reality of mass incarceration, stop and frisk and stand your ground.”[1]

Perhaps, with her careful wording, she wishes to challenge us to consider what our role ought to be when faced with a culture that tempts us “to claim unlimited abundance, unlimited protection and unlimited power;”[2] the three offerings made to Jesus in his testing.

With that backdrop as our contemporary setting this morning, let us turn to our ancient text and examine if it can meet us where we are – and learn how Jesus and his teaching might speak to us today.

The writer of Matthew uses many Chiasms to frame the most important messages of the Gospel. Ash Wednesday’s lesson is no exception. In a Chiastic structure, the beginning of chapter 6 is the center point, or, the pinnacle if you will, of the Sermon on the Mount. Up to this point,

“After establishing the unique nature of the Lord’s community (5:2–12), declaring its mission (5:13–16), and emphasizing God’s righteousness as its defining character (5:17–20), a righteousness that surpasses even the law of love (5:21–48; Lev. 19:18), Jesus stresses the essence of genuine faith (6:1–34). As Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness (4:1–11), he now teaches others: the “righteousness [that] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20) and is as “perfect” as that of God (5:48) is the righteousness that stems from trust in God in every facet of life.”[3]

Perhaps herein lies our challenge: determining how the theme of righteousness, Gk. dikaaiosyneœn, here translated “piety” by the NRSV, relates to our contemporary life of worship and witness in the world as we find it today. Do we, in fact, trust God in every facet of our life? Commentator Robert Bryant writes,

“There is often a stark difference between the appearance of faith and its reality, between idolatry disguised as religion and the charitable faithfulness that comes from a radical reliance on God.”[4]

He invites us to consider four areas of Jesus’ teaching as we take time to examine ourselves and focus on the health of our spiritual witness this Lenten season.

The first is Charade or Charity: which is the choice of selfishness disguised as religious practices or acts of faith that please God. Jesus teaches to give alms as Torah commands, but to beware being showy or prideful about it. The correct motivation for Charity is care for the needy, which I submit is a faithful theological response to God’s mercy first directed toward us – then enacted through compassion for others.

The second is Pretense or Prayer: Showy public orations cheapen what is intimate communication between ourselves and God. Of course, prayer isn’t really about location anyway, but “…the disposition and focus of those who pray…., Righteous prayer is God– and community–centered, not self-centered….”[5]

The third is Flaunting or Fasting, directly related to the previous two. “Exaggerated fasting – like ostentatious charity and affected prayer – is a self-interested distortion….”[6] Like all of the negative examples above, the driving value behind such acts are self-centeredness, our own egos seeking recognition as opposed to a profound act of worshipful self-control (in the case of fasting) aimed at solidarity with God and neighbor.

Finally, these three bring us to an ultimate challenge in self-reflection. What are we pursuing in our life: Fool’s Gold or Lasting Treasure? In the life of this congregation? This community? This country?

“Over against earthly “treasures” that may be seen and praised by people and lost (including the wealth and security that facilitates ostentatious almsgiving or public displays of religious zeal aimed at promoting one’s social status), Jesus asserts that there is a true treasure that is immeasurable and endures forever. It is a treasure valued by God, seen and praised in heaven. It is the treasure of trust in God. The contrast could scarcely be stronger: Jesus is challenging his listeners to confront what and whom they worship. Are they worshiping themselves, something else, or the living God? Righteousness—expressed as piety—is more an inner disposition of the heart than any outward religious observance (v.33; Jer. 31:33-34).”[7]

So here we are, the first Sunday in Lent, 2017; there probably can be no better time than the present for us to stand up for what is right; to be in solidarity with God’s children everywhere, and to remind ourselves whose we are and what it means to live as followers of Jesus Christ, the One who in the wilderness of his time withstood the temptation, “to claim unlimited abundance, unlimited protection and unlimited power.”[8]

Now to God be all glory, honor, dominion and power forever and ever, Amen? May it be so!

[1] “Looking into the lectionary with Jill Duffield” Weekly Presbyterian Outlook E-correspondence

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bryant, Robert A. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Looking into the lectionary with Jill Duffield” Weekly Presbyterian Outlook E-correspondence

Question for Reflection

How might you grow in faith and draw near to Jesus through the forty days of Lent? Some traditions suggest giving something up for the duration of the Lenten season. Perhaps you might add a new spiritual discipline like the Daily Examen or daily Lectio Divina.

Household Prayer: Morning

Holy God, as this day surrounds me like a garden with a thousand trees, give me enough knowledge to obey your commandments, and to choose the fruit that gives life: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Where can I hide from you, O God? You have found me here, stained with the fruit of desire, shivering in the evening breeze. This is all I ask: wrap me in your mercy, and let me rest in your presence; for the sake of Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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