What should I do now that will finally make me utterly miserable, send me directly to hell, “Do not pass Go, do not collect $200”? * What behavior will send me on the road to joy, to eternal life in Heaven? These would seem to be relevant questions, the answers to which our Lord Jesus Christ is setting before us in Matthew chapters five, six and seven.
- That’s from the game Monopoly.
And that is what we’ve been looking at, beginning with Posts 418 and 419.
Why am I giving time to this? Because in our Orthodox tradition, I believe we hear too little about moral living, even though Christ had a lot to say about it. Well, we do hear a fair amount today about sexual sins and abortion – about which, in the Gospels, Christ oddly enough said nothing whatsoever. His focus was apparently elsewhere.
In this series we’re covering the long collation in Matthew titled “The Sermon on the Mount”. (Jesus must have had a much stronger voice than I do.)
In Posts 418 and 419, we covered chapter five. Today it’s chapter six. Brothers and sisters, please get out your Bible and follow along with us.
Matthew 6:1-4 – How to give to charity
Do you want to receive a reward from your Father in Heaven? Then “when do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you like the hypocrites do…”
Stop! What exactly is a hypocrite? We’ll hear that word several times in this chapter. It comes from the Greek υποκριτής, which means a play actor, someone who is pretending to be something he or she is not. A current term for it is a “fake”.
So do not be like the “fakes” who are only putting on a show, pretending to be good people, giving money away only “so that they may have glory from men. Truly I tell you, they have their reward.”
Did they really sound trumpets when they gave? That seems a bit unlikely – though trumpets were used in temple worship, so maybe they waited for the horns to wake people from their slumber, and then made their offerings so all would notice. Maybe.
Jesus continues: “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing * that your charitable deed may be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”
- Why did He say that? That’s impossible. Why didn’t He just say “Do this…”? Because “Do this…” is easily forgotten. Often in His teaching He pulled up clever images, sometimes absurd, impossible images like this one, which make no sense if taken literally – He really knew how to “turn a phrase”, didn’t He? – and stories which would catch peoples’ attention, stir their imaginations, so they would remember. (Herein lies a lesson to those who preach. Or write Blogs.)
The pattern in much of Matthew Chapter 6 is this: Which are you going for? Praise from people or praise from God?
I’ve got to tell you two stories here:
1 When I was a young priest serving my first (Episcopalian) church, a parishioner had given a substantial sum to the church just before I arrived. I didn’t know about it (I had never seen the man in church), so he was never publicly thanked for it. His reaction? He left the parish.
2 When I arrived in that same church, I discovered they were in severe financial trouble. For one thing, the “rectory” (where the priest and his family lived) had mortgage payments which we couldn’t possibly meet. In that same church we had a very wealthy couple. One day she told me “John and I have decided to take care of the rectory”. I was too scared to ask exactly what she meant. Soon a check arrived in the mail paying off the entire cost of the rectory – and they forbade me to tell anyone who had done it.
Is the rest of Chapter Six going to take this long? Oh, I hope not. We’ll see:
Matthew 6:5-13 – How to pray
This begins in the same way: “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Taken literally, this would seem to forbid public worship, where we all pray “standing in our synagogues”, so to speak. That can’t be what He meant. What He forbids is each of us making a “show” of our praying and worshiping.
Here is one possible application: In some Orthodox parishes, people make many metanias; the sign of the cross is made often and very conspicuously; people rarely if ever kneel. In other Orthodox traditions, people worship more simply – by Orthodox standards.Now, what should be the rule if we visit a congregation which is different from our own? Here is the advice given by Saint Ambrose of Milan: “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Do not call attention to your praying. Do not insist on doing it your way. Whatever their customs, so long as they are not un-Orthodox, do what they do. Back home, do it your way. And visitors to your parish should try to follow your pattern, for the same reason.
Our Lord continues: “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the pagans do. For they think they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him.”
“Vain” here means pointless,”fake” praying.
Jesus is not forbidding the Jesus Prayer, the prayer rope, the rosary. The key word here is vain repetitions – pointless “babbling”, repeating the form of prayers without meaning them, without offering them up to God, as if there was a kind of magic in the words themselves.
Do you want to know our most popular “vain repetition”? It is called… the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re not careful, day after day we (or at least I) whip through it without paying any attention to the words, repeating it over and over, without consciously offering it up to God. Vain repetition.
On the other hand, if if we repeat the words of the Jesus Prayer over and over intentionally to help keep us in the presence of God, then that is not “vain repetition”.
But (verse 12)… if God “knows the things you need before you ask Him”, what is the point of asking Him? We’ll look into that next week in chapter seven.
Matthew 6:5-13 – What to pray: the Lord’s Prayer
“But when you pray, pray in this manner: “Our Father in Heaven…” It would take at least four Posts to deal with this. *
- In fact it already did. If you’re interested, go to the lower right side of this page, down to November 2021, where you’ll find exactly four Posts on the Lord’s Prayer. To find a more extensive and much more profound, but very readable, series on the Our Father, I’d suggest going to: https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/the-lords-prayer-introduction
Note, by the way, that here in Saint Matthew the Lord said not “Pray this”, but rather “Pray like this.” He set forth His Prayer as a pattern for all our praying.
Matthew 6:14-15 – Forgiveness
Here Jesus emphasizes the scariest line in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Brothers and sisters, I hope that for the sake of our eternal souls, we do not just rattle this off. “If I’m trying to pay back the one who hurt me, then, Father, pay me back for when I’ve hurt You.” “Am I holding a grudge against that guy? Then, Father, hold a grudge against me.” That is a terrifying prayer.
He says it again: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
I think many people misunderstand forgiveness. I’ve had people come to me in Confession and say, “Father, I thought I’d forgiven [N.], but maybe I haven’t. It keeps coming up in my mind.” Let’s stop and be clear about what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. No matter how hard we try, we can’t forget something. “I will not forget [whatever]” – but of course by the time we’ve tried to forget it, we’ve remember it again!
Nor is forgiveness an emotion. In time negative feelings toward the one who hurt us may settle down, if we don’t encourage them. But till that happens, they are just there. It doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven.
Nor does forgiveness mean establishing a warm relationship again with the person who hurt us. That would be ideal, but in some cases it is just not possible, may even be better for all concerned if we do not. If we cannot, that doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven.
So what is forgiveness? Forgiving is an action. It consists of not trying to pay the other person back for the hurt they’ve caused us. In Confession, I have sometimes asked, “So have you hired a hit man to ‘take out’ the person who hurt you?” (I don’t make Confessions a sombre affair.) If the answer is “No” – so far it always has been, thank God! – I reply, “Then you have taken the first step in forgiving. Now keep working on it till the hurt goes away.. Perhaps at the right time you can take a positive action and do something good for the person who hurt you or for someone they love. Perhaps then the relationship may be restored, and you’ll be on good terms again. Or perhaps not. In any event just don’t encourage the emotions of resentment. Try not to dwell on it. Let it die down in your mind and soul. Pray for the one who hurt you. Do these things again and again, and you will continue to forgive – for forgiving is a process, not a one-time thing.”
I would like to add that never once did I ever say anything that succinct and precise in Confession! The above is what I wish I would say.
But why is it that if we don’t forgive, then God won’t forgive us? Does He treat us in a “tit for tat” way, and we have to take the lead? Certainly not. He takes the lead in our salvation. “God shows His love toward us, for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 However, we are in what some call a “reciprocal relationship” with Him. If we don’t respond to His love and forgiveness by loving and forgiving others, there’s nothing else He can do for us. We have cut ourselves off from Him.
Romans 6:16-18 – How to fast
Back to the old principle: “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
First, note: the Lord says: “When you fast…”, not “if you fast”. He assumes we will fast.
In Jewish fasting many people, as an outward sign, poured ashes on their heads. Jesus says that is not the way to go. It seems odd that many Christians begin Lent by doing precisely what the Lord said not to do! However, please do not conclude that they are all hypocrites for doing this. It would be hypocritical of us to judge them. That’s none of our business. Our job is avoid signs that we’re fasting. Eat your broccoli, and smile!
Matthew 6:19-24 – Seeing it straight
“The lamp of the body is the eye… and if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.” The Lord is speaking not of our physical eyes, but rather our spiritual eyes – perceiving Reality as it is.
If we see straight, then it’s obvious it makes no sense whatsoever to concentrate on laying up treasures on earth. We do need some money to get by, of course! But how long are we going to be here? I, the 85 year old, have the answer to that: Not very long. So, see it right: the focus of our lives must be on that which we can take with us.
Now we come to the core principles for Christian living:
1 What can we take with us when we die? Three things: our love of God, our love for people, and our immortal souls. (That, of course, is why the Great Commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”)
2 “No one can serve two masters.” This is also is obvious. Either one of the other will come first. “You cannot serve God and Mammon *”. Therefore, choose!
- The god of money, riches, wealth. Jesus personalizes this, because the quest for wealth can easily gain control of our lives, as if it’s alive, like a god. Maybe it is.
Matthew 6:15-34 – Do not worry!
Please read this lovely and beloved passage for yourself. Our Lord speaks in poetic language about the lilies of the field, how God gloriously arrays them, and the birds of the air. (As Jesus and His disciples walked about Galilee, I assume they were walking past a field of lilies with birds flying about and He, being clever as always, used them as teaching material. I wish this was one of our Sunday Gospel readings, but it isn’t.
I think the point of this story is often missed. Many people hear it as beautiful but irrelevant. If the meaning is: “Be like the birds and the flowers. Don’t worry.”… Well, look. I’m not a bird. I’m not a lily. I have plenty of things to worry about, a family to feed, kids to get educated. I worry that if I lose my job we’ll be without health care. Pretty story, useless advice.
No, this is not advice. The passage begins with what surely is the most difficult of Christ’s commandments: “Do not worry! Do not be anxious! Stop it!” And then He proceeds to tell us how we can learn to stop worrying.
God knows, it’s easy for us to spend a huge amount of time worrying – which (and we all know this) accomplishes absolutely nothing. As C S Lewis wrote somewhere, the future is completely open. A thousand things might happen, and we can worry about all of them – though there wouldn’t be time for all of them to happen, and what happens may well be something we never thought to worry about! All we actually have to work with is the present – and we can waste the present moment by spending it worrying about the future.
Therefore at the end of this passage, here is how to stop worrying. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” By “all these things”, He means “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we put on?”
Note carefully: The Lord did not say Do not work, or Do not save, or Do not to plan for the future. He said “Do not worry”.
Put God and His commandments and the people He loves before everything else, and He promises that our needs will be fulfilled. He promises “what we need”, not “what we might want”. God does not promise to put us in the upper 1% with enough cash to fill every room in the spare wing of our mansion up to the ceiling, or that we’ll win the sweepstakes. If we don’t chase after those things, don’t make them our treasure, if we can make ourselves satisfied with…
… then we won’t waste time worrying because we don’t have…
Simple. Easy. … … I don’t think so…
Nevertheless, the last verse: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Next week: We conclude this series with Matthew chapter seven.
Week after next: I have no idea.