St. Matthew 6:1-21
February 26, 2020 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the points that Jesus makes in the sermon on the mount is that we should not take on bodily disciplines and ceremonies, such as how we pray and fast, in order to gain favor among men or God, but that we should take these things on for the strengthening of faith.
There is a sense in which this seems too obvious to us. We know that we should be concerned about eternal things and that the good opinion of men can’t save us. But at the same time we don’t live in a world where men are impressed by spirituality. It is not likely that anyone in Ft. Wayne would get a promotion because he showed up at work with a cross around his neck. It is more likely, at this point, that he be told to remove the offensive religious symbol and maybe be denied a promotion. Our context, both in the Church and the in the world, makes what Jesus is saying hard to apply.
What make this likely even more difficult is that Jesus makes this point by means of a hyperbole. That can be hard for us to recognize since what He says seems so obvious and we might mistake it for a simple statement of fact. And then, because it is difficult to apply, we might just choose an easy road that requires not effort on our behalf or ignore it. We are too weak for that!
A hyperbole is a figure of speech that exaggerates beyond reality. It is not a lie any more than saying that Jesus is a door is a lie. Imagine this scenario. A mother asks her daughter to clean her room because company is coming over and the daughter does not clean her room. The daughter is not wicked or lazy. She just procrastinates. She has been doing so for years. The mother asks a second time. The daughter does not do it. These are normal people. The daughter does not hate her mother. She is respectful and polite. There is great affection between them. The mother knows the daughter will eventually clean her room. At the same time, the mother is becoming somewhat frustrated and slightly frazzled. The time of the company’s arrival is drawing near. So she says to her daughter: “I have asked you to clean your room a million times. I am not going to ask you again.”
Both mother and daughter know exactly how many times the request was made. It is not hard to keep track of two requests. It is nowhere near one million. But the daughter doesn’t protest or call her mom a liar. She turns on her heels and cleans her room.
In that illustration, the mother used hyperbole to make her point. She wanted to demonstrate the emotion that she was feeling by introducing some drama and humor. She didn’t think that her daughter hated her or was the laziest and rudest person in the world. She was, however, frustrated. She was becoming stressed out. She was pretending, in a sense, as though she felt as helpless and thwarted as if she’d asked a million times and her daughter had ignored her callously. She was also conveying to the daughter the urgency and importance of getting the cleaning done right then and not procrastinating any more because they were running out of time.
Perhaps the mother could have achieved the same effect with simple statements of fact. Hyperbole, however, had some advantages in that scenario. The drama and humor weren’t offensive. Rather than escalate things, they deescalated it. They did so by rightly communicating to the daughter that she needed to do what she was asked right then. Hyperbole is often more effective and more succinct than explaining things in detail. We do this deftly and frequently in every day speech, rarely with any need for analysis. It comes naturally.
But when it comes to the Scriptures, this same figure of speech can be difficult to detect. Some of that is because we don’t have body language and inflection to help us, but it can also be because we are misreading the Scriptures out of a confused piety that is afraid of not taking Jesus seriously or not taking Him literally.
We should always take Jesus seriously. We should hold His Word in the highest regard and not doubt what it says. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize some humor in Jesus. To take Him literally means to take what He means literally and not to take every word literally. Jesus frequently uses figures of speech. I suspect the highest density of hyperboles are in the sermon on the mount but the sermon on the mount has other figures as well. In any case, we don’t think, for example, that Jesus is a door made of our wood or steel that swings on hinges even though He says, “I am the door.” Rather we recognize that what He means is that He is the way to the Father and eternal life. That is the literal meaning.
When Jesus says that we shouldn’t pray in public like the hypocrites do but that we should go into our closets to pray, He doesn’t mean exactly what the words by themselves mean. We know this because He Himself prayed in public in the Temple and in the synagogues. He can’t mean that we shouldn’t ever pray in public where other people can see us but that we should only pray in secret. He didn’t do that. So also that idea doesn’t line up with other Bible passages that call us to public worship.
So what is does He mean and why does He say it this way? In some sense, He is a bit like that frustrated mother. He is frustrated with our inability to carry out a simply command. He exaggerates what we should do to convey not only the emotion of His frustration but also to emphasize what really matters. We need to pray in order to be heard by God, not to impress men, whether we are in public or in private. It is not a particularly profound point, but it is an important one. Perhaps He speaks it in this way precisely because it is so obvious and lacks profundity in order to give it some drama.
In the same way, when Jesus talks about the hypocrites that disfigure their faces in order to be seen to be fasting, no one was actually disfiguring his face. He was exaggerating the way the hypocrites were behaving. When He commands us to fast in secret, He doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about fasting or that we can’t, in any way, fast in public. Like prayer, He means we need to be doing it for the right reasons – not to earn favor with God or with men, but to be reminded of our mortality and the weakness of our flesh, to take some action against our passions, and to remember that we live not by bread but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We should fast mainly for spiritual benefits and not simply for earthly rewards.
The idea that we can keep this command against hypocrisy in fasting by not fasting is akin to the intertestamental blasphemy that we could keep the 2nd commandment by never actually speaking the Lord’s Name out loud. Fasting done right has real spiritual benefits as do myriad ceremonies. Abstaining from fasting or ceremonies doesn’t make you a better Christian, but it can certainly give a hold for Satan to tell you that it does. There are so many ways to be self-righteous and we are masters of them all.
I don’t mean to say that you have to fast or that you have to fold your hands when you pray or that you have to treat the Altar as a holy space. None of that is commanded by God even though all of it may be useful. You are, in fact, free to pray without folding your hands or bowing your head or closing your eyes or ever saying a pray written by someone else. You are free to put your coffee cup and a bag of trash on the Altar. But such things will not make you holier than those who seek wisdom and guidance from their fathers and who seek to be respectful of tradition. If you think that they do then you are a hypocrite worse than the one who is outwardly respectful toward tradition for you are both outwardly disrespectful and inwardly proud. No one can worship God on this side of glory without ceremonies. Ceremonies serve us well when they teach and confess. None of us is free from the need for teaching and confession or from ceremonies.
And what if there are earthly rewards for ceremonies or bodily disciplines? What if I fast because I want to curb the flesh but I would also, at the same time, like to be thinner and it works? What if I bow my head in prayer and the dodge a bullet? Was my prayer worthless because I gained a bodily benefit? Of course not. Earthly rewards don’t negate spiritual rewards or benefits. A problem will arise, however, if we aren’t after spiritual rewards and want only earthly rewards. Fasting without faith might promote weight loss but you can’t strengthen what you don’t have. It won’t strengthen faith. So also a problem will arise if we make too fine a distinction between spiritual and earthly rewards, as though Christian ever received earthly rewards that weren’t spiritual or as though spiritual good ever came, on this side of glory, apart from creation.
Jesus Himself has a Body. In that Body, He took on bodily disciplines and ceremonies. He fasted and went apart from the crowds in weariness to pray, and also worshipped in the Temple and synagogue. In that Body, born of Mary, baptized by John, He was anointed by the woman, and ate with hypocrites and with sinners and with Gentiles. He also sat and ate with the quiet in the land such as Mary and Martha. That Body was also ceremonially scourged and spat upon and mocked. He was strung up in that Body in the cruel ceremony of Rome reserved for terrorists and traitors. But that ceremony was no mere ceremony. It is the life of the world, the glory of the Son, the gift of the Father. On the third day, an angel ceremoniously rolled away the Stone even though the body of Jesus was already gone from the tomb and he ceremoniously sat down on it This ceremony had no hypocrisy. It was a confession of Jesus’ victory for us. In it, we have freedom and joy and strength to face our own ceremonial mortality, our own existential, spiritual deaths and resurrections, even as we prepare for the physical separation of body and soul that is the path for us in Christ to glory.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.,