Matthew 6:1-18 – Secret Hearts

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

We’re going to pick up the pace (a little) for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, as some broader thematic topics are being addressed now.  In study Bibles, the passage above is often broken into three headings: “Giving to the Needy,” “Prayer,” and “Fasting.” And those are good headings, but I want to focus on the broader message here, which is how God knows our secret hearts.

Having a private relationship with God means that we have one that is more real.  If the Pharisees were around today, they might be part some of the worst of the Selfie generation:  posing outside the synagogue with ashes on their head, or a shot of them ladling something onto a plate at the soup kitchen from an up-high angle while the people in the background are serving people three times as fast.  In modern terms, they’re just there for the photo op.  Any accolades they receive are their just reward, and nothing deeper is going to come from it.

This doesn’t mean we can’t share about our Faith, it just means don’t be an ass about it.  If you’re just out there virtue signalling, you have some spiritual growing up to do.  The “likes and comments” test, if you will, is actually a pretty good one.  Are you just doing this for the attention, to belittle someone, or make yourself look better? Then keep it to yourself.  Are you doing this because you genuinely want to share something you think might make a difference?  Are you raising awareness for a worthy cause? Do you want to share your joy over God’s creation?  Go for it.

God knows our intentions, and if our intentions are good, then our actions will be also.  This is why it is so important to keep coming back to love.  Are our actions coming from a place of love?  It sounds so simple, but it’s really very divisive.  In fact, I think this may be my biggest beef with much of Conservative Christianity.  They say that their beliefs, their actions, come from a love of Jesus, and a want to uphold his teachings.  But Jesus taught us, above all, to love our neighbors, love our enemies. So if we love Jesus, then we should be focused on that, right?  And loving someone does not included forced conversion therapy, denying services to someone who isn’t the right religion or sexual orientation, or a paranoid guarding of this country’s borders.  Loving means making sure everyone has enough to eat, and a safe place to live, access to care, the ability to work and to love and to build a family unmolested, regardless of how different they are from us.  Actions creating that kind of world speak to loving intentions.  If we build our walls, deny our brothers and sisters their rights because they are “other,” we will get accolades from like-minded (small-minded) people.  And that is all that we’ll deserve.  But, if we help lift up everyone, even if it means working quietly and in small ways that only God may see, then we will be rewarded by God.

Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message.  Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society:  The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees.  By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention.  They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean.  I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it.  Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?

Then this pivot to love your enemies.  It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up.  And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.

But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues.  It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today.  It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us.  And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy.  I don’t really feel like loving any of them.  I’m guessing you don’t either.  So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug.  What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.

A word or two on translation may help, here.  Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations:  There are two particular words that make a difference here.  First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before.  Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love).  “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love.  A love of everything, if you will.  It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill.  That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced.  Have you ever just had a really good day?  It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around?  Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time.  I think this is Agape love.  Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?

Second, “perfect.”  The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation.  Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive.  We need to love everyone.  That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality.  That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.

So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner?  How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind?  Practice.  I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it.  Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.

But what TF to practice?  “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t.  Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.

Praying, for one.  I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil.  But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching.  Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to.  Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”

Also, remembering them as human helps, too.  Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom.  Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster.  That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.

Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things.  This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry.  I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.”  There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements.  If you are oppressed, use those tools.  But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it.  As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal.  You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.

Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can.  It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world.  It is  hard to hate someone offering only love.  Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go.  Again, think of your enemies’ kids:  What better victory would it be to win them over?  And it’s happening.  Take acceptance of gay marriage for example.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage.  In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage.  In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened.  Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion?  Compassion, or lack thereof.  I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.

It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred.  But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them.  We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated.  Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t.  But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions.  Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving.  Doing so, we will win.

Matthew 5:27-32 – Adultery and Divorce

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I love Jesus’ passages on anything marital because it throws people through a loop.  It sounds like he’s saying one thing, but in reality, he’s saying another.  He’s so freaking subversive, in a lot of things, but especially talking about marital relations.  Remember, he’s up against an establishment.  Actually, several establishments, but particularly the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees (he will speak to them directly in chapter 19 on the subject of marriage), but you can bet that every idea conveyed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made it back to them.  The very fact that many of Jesus’ teachings can be taken two ways must have been maddening to the Pharisees.  They were smart guys, if misled, and they wouldn’t have missed this.

But let’s back up a little bit, before we get into subliminal messages, let’s talk about hyperbole again really quick.  A few posts ago I mentioned that Jesus loved to use hyperbole to make his point.  This is a classic, perhaps the classic example of that.  Jesus is NOT advocating self-mutilation, but using the cutting off of body parts as a visceral metaphor for removing yourself from sin and temptation.  (As an aside, I’ve written about what I think “sin” is. You can read more about it in that post, but in a nutshell: the greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.) There are whole programs that help people overcome their shortcomings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that center around this idea of avoidance.  Even if you aren’t actually plucking out your eye, it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself: the friends you had when using might disappear if you don’t sever ties yourself; your personality might change-hopefully for the better, but it can still be disconcerting to realize you’re not the person you thought you were; even your daily routines may change to avoid temptation.  No one thinks that cutting off the hands of an unrepentant alcoholic is going to keep them from drinking.  Believe me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  But if you are dedicated to sobriety, you will learn how to avoid your triggers for using.  The same is true for sin, for which “lust” is a stand-in here – if you’re dedicated to the teachings of Jesus, you’ll search for ways to avoid sinning.  And I very much doubt it means plucking out your eye, but rather changing your behavior to better reflect your values.

Alright, with that rather lengthy note about hyperbole aside, let’s talk about Jesus’ sly little speech here.  Surface reading:  Get married so you can look at your wife without sinning, squirrel your wife away so she doesn’t unintentionally cause a man to sin by looking at her, and divorce is bad but here’s this broad loophole for “sexual immorality,” which history has interpreted as anything from a full-out affair to wearing the wrong dress, so don’t worry too much about it, you can interpret that at your will.  It’s advice for a “godly man” trying to build a “virtuous” world that best suits him.  And that is how, for the majority of Western history, it has been interpreted: by the patriarchy subjecting women to their rule.

But Jesus was way more egalitarian than that.  I just finished reading an article about how radical it was that Jesus ate with women at the same table.  Apparently, the only women at a co-ed table were the ones there as sexual objects.  So the fact that he elevated women to an equal status at the table, eating and exchanging ideas with men, was like, super crazy radical.  There’s no way this same guy would be saying “here’s a way to dominate women through marriage and policing how and when they appear in society.”

Let’s revisit that lust and adultery thing of vv. 27-30.  Jesus is saying if a woman is causing lustful thoughts in a man’s mind, it is the MAN’S responsibility to remove himself from that situation, NOT the woman’s responsibility to modify her clothing or behavior.  “Pluck out your eye,” (aka stop looking at her) Jesus says.  Police your own actions, not the woman’s.  I. Cannot. Make. That. Clear. Enough.  It is the responsibility of the person who lusts (or sins in any other way) to remove themselves from the sinful situation.  No one else’s.  Through this verse, Jesus is fully recognizing a woman’s right to move through society unmolested, and reminding men that their actions are their own responsibility.

This bit about divorce and adultery that follows all this talk about lust is mostly about protecting women’s rights as well.  The part of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes, “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,” is a law that was trying to codify a modicum of protection for women, who were, at the time, not much more than their husband’s property.  The full verse reads “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,” (Deut. 24:1) Subsequent verses then goes on to describe who that woman can and can’t marry.  To make that very clear, a man could divorce a woman simply because she is displeasing to him.  Yes, it has that vague bit about being indecent, but we have seen through history how that has been manipulated to mean any sort of thing:  an infertile woman was often thought to be “cursed” because of some immoral transgression, and therefore expendable; a woman who suffered an illness and therefore displeased her husband could be seen as similarly “cursed;” a woman who boldly spoke her mind was displeasing to her husband as he found her indecent in her speech.

A divorced woman had little agency in society.  Her financial support had been taken away, and there were not a lot of jobs for single mothers out there.  She had limited options for remarriage and the financial support that came with it.  Oftentimes her family wouldn’t or couldn’t take her back in.  Remember, even with this “certificate of divorce” she has been declared “indecent,” and what upstanding citizen would want to be associated with that?  So, the divorced woman, often through no fault of her own, faced social ostracization and poverty.  So when Jesus basically negates divorce (except for true charges of infidelity), he gave blanket coverage to any and all wives of the men who chose to follow him.  As for those who do marry divorced women, in Jesus’ society, that made them complicit to the system.  By including those second marriages in his condemnation, I think Jesus was underscoring just how important a societal change of attitude towards women’s rights was.

All that said, I do believe that Jesus really means that divorce is bad, in any circumstance.  Before you get all huffy and stop reading on me, let me just say, as much as Jesus speaks out against divorce, I don’t think he condemns anyone for it.  In an ideal world, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity, and levelheadedness to sit down with their intended and make sure that yes, this is a good decision.  And once married, again, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity and levelheadedness to do the hard work of keeping a good marriage strong.  But the truth is, that’s just not the case.  So, if you made a mistake in your first marriage (hell, even in your second or third), I do hope you learned from it, but rest assured that God knows you are human, and that mistakes are pretty much what we do.  The glorious thing about God is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, if we come to Xyr with a repentant heart. For one more silver lining: I do think we are headed in the right direction (even if it is slowly) when it comes to marriage and divorce.  The most in-depth study I could find was from the UK, but I bet it’s similar in the US: Couples are waiting until their early 30’s to get married, are dating almost 5 years before marriage, and the divorce rate is the lowest it’s been (and still falling) since 1971.

The main takeaway, folks, is that Jesus recognized how women in his society were underserved.  He couched it in language that wouldn’t immediately get him thrown into prison: on the surface it looks like a support of the patriarchy, but those that have the ears to hear would hear his true message:  one of recognition, of equality, of love.  Let’s help spread that message of love and equality to all women, to all people, everywhere.