Piety or Program? Third Sunday of Epiphany

Matthew 6

The scholars of the Westar Institute suggest that of the words attributed to Jesus by Matthew in this 6th chapter, only the following can be assumed to have likely been said by him at one time or another:

6:3:  When you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

6:9-12:   Our Father, your name be revered.  Impose your imperial rule.  Provide us with the bread we need for the day.  Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.

6:24-30:  No one can be a slave to two masters . . . You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account!  That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life   what you’re going to eat and drink   or about your body what you’re going to wear . . . won’t God care for you even more, you who don’t take anything for granted?

Two other points are important: First regarding 6:1-18 “This complex of materials features three forms of Judean and early Christian piety: acts of charity, prayer, and fasting.  In Thomas 14:1-3, Jesus categorically warns his disciples against these three forms of piety.  In Matthew the public face of piety is contrasted with piety in private.”  The Five Gospels, p. 147.  The community that produced the sayings gospel of Thomas had Jesus say, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.” The Five Gospels, p. 480.

Second, regarding 6:24-30, “Among the more important things Jesus said are a series of pronouncements on anxieties and fretting.  It is possible that [this is] the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus, with the exception of some of the longer narrative parables . . . This string of sayings is addressed to those who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence rather than with political or apocalyptic crises.” The Five Gospels, pp. 152-153.

Matthew’s community found fasting, prayer, and charitable giving to be essential to conventional religious life, and it is Matthew’s interpretation that has become the ground rules for pious Christian living. But the possibility that the Thomas community found those actions to be dangerous to spiritual well-being may turn out to be closer to what Jesus actually had in mind. Piety can easily lead to inflexibility and ultimately to the kind of Pharisaic self-righteousness and hypocrisy that Matthew’s (and Luke’s) Jesus holds up as examples of how not to live in God’s realm.  Matthew is well aware of this danger.  He warns against flaunting your religion in public by praying out loud and making sure you get the credit for any charity you extend to the poor.  He says that if you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you.  He warns against storing up treasures on earth, and says, “Instead, gather your nest egg in heaven . . . what you treasure is your heart’s true measure.”  He says, “If then the light within you is darkness, how dark that can be!”

But probably the most famous of Matthew’s proclamations has been whole-heartedly endorsed by the “prosperity gospel” of the last 150 years: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you!” Or, as the scholars version puts it, “. . . all these things will come to you as a bonus.”  The Thomas folks were onto something.  It’s better not to pray or fast or give to charity, if you do all these things in order to get a reward whether it is in this life or the next one.

Jesus is notorious for over-throwing conventional piety.  Let’s start with “the Lord’s prayer.”  See especially, Jesus Before God, by Hal Taussig of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar and The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan.  (More on the Crossan book in the next few weeks.)  For now, we immediately see that Jesus has the audacity to address God with a familiar term “Abba   Father.”  Then he suggests it is that familiar name that should be regarded as sacred.  Next he calls for God’s rule to be imposed, not the rule of the kings of the earth.  He is then most concerned with having bread for the day, and forgiveness of debts.  Jesus goes to the heart of an oppressed society, where the availability of bread and the inevitability of debt were daily anxiety-producing facts of life.

But he ends the plea for forgiveness with a reminder of the nature of living in covenant with God:  Debt is forgiven by God “to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.”  No spinning the words regarding the meaning of “as,” as in “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It’s about debt and the forgiveness of debt to the extent we forgive debt others owe to us, not the forgiveness of sin BECAUSE or even IF we forgive the sin or petty trespass that others do to us.  Living in covenant with God means living in covenant with one another.  That is the difference between Jesus’ simple program and the complicated piety recommended by the interpreters of Jesus’ teachings from the gospel writers to Jimmy Swaggart.

The whole of chapter 6, in Jesus’ words, is about living in covenant, with a solid dose of economics.  Next he says, “No one can be a slave to two masters.  No doubt the slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other.  You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account!”  He then goes directly into the discourse on anxieties and worry.  “That is why I tell you, Don’t fret about your life . . .”

Matthew buries Jesus’ call to a program of radical abandonment of self interest under a torrent of pious rules about washing your face, praying in secret, and investing in heavenly riches instead of earthly ones.  He implies that anyone who engages in public demonstrations of piety is living in a shroud of darkness, but at the same time, if you pray and fast in secret (out of the light of day?) you will be rewarded.  Mark’s Jesus says very clearly that the kingdom of God is within you, surrounds you, and while it is hidden, all you have to do is open your eyes and recognize it.  But Matthew says it has to be searched for and earned.  He negates the radicality of Jesus’ faith in God’s care, which the lilies and birds take for granted, by suggesting that those who do not take the kingdom of God for granted, but who search for it, will be rewarded with riches.

Post-modern people still believe that the rich are favored by God, and the poor are poor because they have done something to remove them from God’s favor.  They are paying for their sin.  Christians still maintain that God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion — God’s covenant rule — has to be searched for, and not simply recognized.  Perhaps this is because of the difficulty we have, living in the normalcy of civilization’s systems, to opt out of convention and follow the program:  Forgive debt; be a slave to God’s rule, not the bank’s or the boss’s or the pious rules that society insists upon.  God may well dress up the grass in splendor, and then throw it into the fire tomorrow; we, however, must pay attention to the acquisition of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and all the “necessities” of civilized life.  Besides, even if the kingdom is recognized, actually living in covenant with other people is problematic at best, and —  if Jean Paul Sartre provides the post-modern, existential baseline —  “hell” at worst.

The Jesus Seminar scholars remind us to remember the context for Jesus’ fairly long rant in 6: 24-30.  The people he was talking to were trapped in the injustices of day-to-day existence and were not concerned about any particular political or apocalyptic crisis.  The communities the gospel writers were addressing 60 to 100 years later were in the midst of both, dealing with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the breakdown of Jewish tradition, and increasing oppression and war under the Roman occupation.  Twenty-first century would-be followers of Jesus’ Way are facing political, social, economic, and environmental apocalypse.  Rather than radical, Jesus’ actual words sound naive: “There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? . . . Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? . . . won’t God care for you even more?”  In a world where there is no god, this makes little sense.

In the 21st century, the contrast between a radical program such as Jesus suggested and the conventional piety Matthew was obliged to insist upon may be illustrated by looking at the differences between Liberation Theology and the prosperity gospel represented by Joel Osteen.  Some folks might think that Liberation Theology went out with its pious redefinition as “preferential option for the poor” by the late Pope John-Paul.  But the radical idea that Jesus was talking about the political liberation of oppressed people has not disappeared just because mainline Christian churches have decided it’s politically passe.

In Volume 1 of The Gospel in Solentiname, Ernesto Cardenal and his Bible Study group take on the meaning of Matthew 6:24-34 (1987 edition, pp. 221-237).  The following quotations speak for themselves:

William:  To serve means to love, and what Christ is saying is that you can’t love God and love money.  Because God is love and love of money is selfishness.
Felix:   Then Jesus doesn’t condemn just the rich but everyone who is greedy for money even though he’s poor.
William:  Of course.
Dona Angela:  And the day when there’s no rich people and there’s no poor people greedy for money, then all of us are going to be able to serve God.
* * *
Alejandro:   . . . when the Gospel asks us not to worry, I see clearly that it’s talking about a social change.  That is, it’s not a question just of waiting around for miracles.  The thief often steals because his family has nothing to eat, and he lives with that worry.  And the rich person worries about making more money.  I believe we can have a social system in which we don’t have that worry, that anguish that I’m going to lose my job or have less money than the other fellow or that I’ll get sick or what am I going to do when I’m old.  But not in this other system, because you have all you need and nobody’s going to take it away from you and you can devote yourself to working in peace, to studying and all that, without that desperation.
Gustavo:  But I believe that on the road to that system, which can be a very long road, it’s more necessary than ever to have that lack of concern.  Because when you work for other people you maybe won’t have any support.  You’re going to be up in the air, and if you don’t have that confidence that Jesus talks about, you won’t dare take a step.  You’ll just stick to your personal interests, to your selfish concerns.
* * *
Marcelino:  The kingdom of God is love.  And justice, it’s the same.  Let’s try to bring about this society of love and justice, and then there will be no more exploitation.  And therefore there will be abundance for everybody.  We’ll all have not only food and clothing but also schools, clinics, hospitals, adequate housing, all we need.

Contrast that with the self-centered, positive visualization advice from Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential):

God is a good God, and He gives good things to his children. No matter who has denigrated you or how much pain you’ve experienced in life, no matter how many setbacks you have suffered, you cannot allow yourself to accept that as the way life is supposed to be. No, God has better things in store for you. You must reprogram your mind with God’s word; change that negative, defeated self-image, and start seeing yourself as winning, coming out on top. Start seeing that marriage as restored. See your business as flourishing. See your children as enjoying the good things of God. You must see it through your eyes of faith, and then it will begin to happen.

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff brings it all into contemporary focus:

Among the many functions of theology today two are most urgent: how theology collaborates in the liberation of the oppressed, who are today’s “crucified Christs,” and how theology helps to preserve the memory of God so that we do not lose the sentiment and sacredness of human life which is threatened by a culture of superficiality, consumption and entertainment. We should always unite faith with justice, where a perspective of liberation is born, keeping the flame of our sacred lamp burning so that it can feed the hope for a better future for the Earth and all humanity.

Piety may get you a tax deduction, but the program saves our souls.

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