There are certain words and phrases which always grab your undivided attention. I mean, when you hear these specific words, your mind focuses on nothing else other than the words, sounds, and emotions which come next. Why is that? Because you know they’re going to be important. Why are they important? They person speaking these words is usually someone who has your best interest in mind. For instance, when your parents or relatives (teachers, principals, or even spouse) call you by your full name, “Richard Lowell Bryant”, you know they mean business. When you hear your full name, you know the person who called it is following up on something with your best interest in mind. We know, what comes next is going to be important. The “what comes next” is as important as what grabs your attention in the first place.
Here we are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus says two things that always grab my attention: “Be careful!” When Jesus says Be Careful, we better pay attention. I can’t stress this enough. This is not someone talking about Jesus. This is Jesus saying, from his own mouth, something he thinks we ought to remember, do, hang on to, live up to, and make happen in our daily lives. This is huge.
Preachers, pastors, and theologians love to talk about Jesus and interpret what Jesus said and meant to say. Here, Jesus is going to come right out and say it for himself. If we don’t like what he says, we take it up with him.
What does Jesus say? Why does he want us to be careful?
He wants us to be careful about being religious. Specifically, how we express our religious beliefs in public. Religion can be dangerous. Jesus saw how poor people were being oppressed by a religious establishment which used piety as weapon. Hence, we need to be careful about becoming weapons after being the victims of religious blunt force trauma.
Jesus is all over Facebook. Sometimes I even put him there. However, just because Jesus lived over 2000 years ago doesn’t mean he didn’t have social media. Twitter, Google, Instagram, and Facebook all took different forms in 1st century Galilee. In his time people still interacted with each other in very public, social means.
Who is on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? If you are, you’ve no doubt seen pictures that say something to the effect, “if you love Jesus, type Amen”. Jesus is usually holding an outstretched hand. While the premise seems innocuous enough, it’s very similar to the warning Jesus gave in today’s text. Be careful about putting your religiosity on display.
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so people will see them. I assure you that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place.”
I think Jesus would say, “you know it’s nice that you want people to type Amen when they see my picture but it would be even nicer if they would simply go in their rooms and pray in private where no one sees anything. My ego doesn’t need that kind of affirmation.” It would be even better if instead of typing four letters as a sign of their love for me they might do something about hungry people in Hyde County or Malaria in Africa.
Two faces. That’s a hypocrite. It’s the Greek word for an actor who wears one mask with two sides. That’s how Jesus refers to those who were generally thought to be the super-religious of his day. They seemed one way in public and another way in private. Jesus is about consistency across the board. But there’s something lost in translation. Jesus is not only saying “don’t be a hypocrite” he saying, “don’t be a ridiculous looking hypocrite.” You have to step back from the text for a moment. Jump out of the words and see this like a motion picture.
Jesus says, “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting.” Now what do you think Jesus did? Do you think he sat there (he usually taught from a seated position) with a stern face and deep preacher voice and said? “Do not contort your faces like the hypocrites?” Or do you believe to make his point a bit more memorable, so his people would know to be careful, he might have twisted his face a little, made a funny voice, messed up his hair and said, “don’t be like the hypocrites?” Those are the things we lose in the translation. Yet, they are right there are on the big screen of the real live Jesus movie for us to see. Jesus laughing, Jesus making a point, Jesus saying, “don’t be ridiculous, use some common sense about your faith, you’ll turn people off by making ugly faces.” Ugly faces might reflect ugly souls. Who’s going to want to get to know God if you look like that? Jesus taught us to be careful, be real, and not take ourselves too seriously while still taking our love of God as seriously as ever.
It’s the same way with money. Believe you me, even Jesus knew that it took more than good vibes and love to keep things going. Giving was crucial to sharing God’s love. It’s not a way to gain personal attention. Be careful. If you ever get confused about those two points go back to square one. Check and see that you’re not running for president. Which is better, Jesus is saying, announce to the world by singing a song and hiring a band, “look at me and how rich and holy I am?” Or, (step back again-look at the sly look on his face when he says this), give in such a way that the one hand that puts the money in the plate does so without the other hand being aware? He wants it to be that low key. What you’re giving is not a big deal to you, let alone anyone else. That’s how this is supposed to work, like you’re keeping it a secret from yourself. Can you imagine the befuddled looks on their faces?
I can. Jesus’ audience had been raised to believe in what I call “the scene”. God was about “the scene” (bloody sacrifices, ritual offerings, and God in the temple) and making a “scene” in response to God’s “scene”. The whole process got out of hand. One of the later prophets, a guy named Micah said that God was no longer interested in offerings or sacrifices but humility and kindness. Jesus picks up where Micah left off. Jesus says these religious rituals may make us appear publically religious but we’re only fooling ourselves. They eat away at our humanity, humility, and our ability to be kind.
The last thing Jesus reminds us is to not be a hoarder. You’ve seen the hoarding television shows. They’re difficult to watch. People who’ve collected years of junk and now live in absolute emotional and physical chaos. No matter how little or how much stuff we have, it will rot and rust. Stuff is impermanent and will eventually go away. If we’ve over prioritized stuff, things, possessions then we’ve can’t prioritize God. God will not share a shelf, corner, or garage with your boat.
Hoard God, collect God, and surround yourself with the intangible and tangible presence of God. God will never rot, wither, or rust. You can’t flaunt God but everyone will notice it without you having to say a word. God’s presence and abundance in your life will be so obvious people will want to take it from you without you noticing. That’s ok. Let them steal it. Bands of marauders can take God’s presence all day long. You may want to put out little cans of God’s presence (like cat food) all over town and invite people to come and take some when and if they’re ready. God’s presence: where you are, so God is.