Saturday, June 25, 2011

Worship Indeed, But Make it Real – SOTM #15

In the first third of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus: (1)laid out the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven (in the Beatitudes), (2) described the role his disciples would play in the kingdom of the world (acting as salt and light), (3) explained his relationship to the Law (he came to fulfill it, not destroy it), and (4) refuted the rigid but shallow understanding of the law that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were enforcing.

In Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel the sermon takes up issues of the heart, beginning with sincerity of worship. Jesus contrasts appropriate worship with the showy and hypocritical worship of that day. The picture Jesus draws of prayers offered on street corners, of trumpets blaring as offerings are brought to the temple, seem exaggerated. Is Jesus creating a caricature of their worship for purposes of making a point? It is tempting to believe he is. The religious icons of that day set themselves up for such treatment. But what ordinary person would dare make light of the sacred men and their time-honored practices?

Religious expression in our day has become, if anything, more public, and more showy, than it was in Jesus day. Street preachers do not fare well in our secular society; they are often ignored or ridiculed in western culture. However, the equivalent of the proud and public Pharisee can be seen today on the Television and in large auditoriums and stadiums around the world. Many ordinary Christians, looking on in bewilderment, wonder if they have the right to question the piety, the sincerity, the spiritual legitimacy of these champions of worship, prayer, preaching, faith, health, and prosperity.

Righteousness, as portrayed by the Pharisees, in Jesus day, or by the paragons of performance of our day, is beyond the reach of ordinary people, not because it is a righteousness, more lofty, more difficult to achieve. To the contrary, it lacks, in practice, what ordinary people believe real righteousness should have, solid sincerity. The righteousness of exhibitionism requires one to stoop to behaviors they would not employ in the ordinary pursuits of their life. Onstage, among fellow religious revelers, it looks good, sounds good, has a reputation of being good. Often it even evokes, in observers, admiration and a desire to emulate it, but when one tries it on, it just doesn’t fit. It is a flashy suit hiding a hollow man or woman inside.

The crowds that heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount were glad to hear someone strip away the hypocrisy of such “righteousness” and reveal a way that everyman could worship their God.

Charity (support for the poor), prayer, and fasting were, Jesus taught, a matter between the individual and God. The left hand had no need to know what the right hand was giving. That was between the right hand and God. The neighbors did not need to know that one was praying, it was a conversation between the supplicant and God. Nothing was added to the value of a fast by making it known through a gaunt, disheveled appearance. It was a time set aside to better know God.

It is the tendency of religious institutions and professional religious leaders to systematize the behaviors of piety that are required of the “righteous.” And it is the tendency of some to specialize in those behaviors, elaborating them, magnifying them, institutionalizing them, popularizing them, and eventually, profiting from them. They become the hallmarks of righteousness. Along the way the kingdom of heaven begins to look, and sound, and feel, not much different than the kingdom of this world.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount showed the ordinary citizen of the kingdom of heaven a way around all that clutter, to a “closet” of real intimacy with God. In a few short phrases he captured the spirit of rightness that embodies all of our dealings with God and man. We’ll look at that next time.

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