Previously, on Brokenness... When we last left our hero, Cartoon Chris was having all his rationalizations and beliefs in his own human decency obliterated, one by one, by chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount. At last count, he was about here:
Surely, Cartoon Chris believes, the rest of his excuses will stand up under Chapters 6 and 7 of Matthew! Ha ha! Cartoon Chris is naive and foolish.
I'm Good with God Because I Give to the Poor (Matthew 6:1-4)
Isn't giving to the needy one of the things that everyone agrees is nice and good? Shouldn't I get a big, cosmic pat on the back every time I sign a check to a charity (like, oh, say, Teen Challenge New England, or the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation)? Well, Jesus says, not if your heart wasn't in the right place. If you give for selfish reasons, it's not bad exactly, but God isn't gonna throw you a party. It's easy to imagine why when you look at it relationally:
This can go on, ad infinitum. (And does, if YouTube comments are anything to go on - and we know they are.) There's always a way to feel morally superior to someone. One big theme of the Sermon on the Mount is that the trying to justify oneself is offensive in and of itself.
I'm Good with God Because I'm Very Religious (Matthew 6:5-18)
It's probably not news to most of us that religious showboating and legalistic list-checking don't make us righteous before God. But does it help to turn the Sermon on the Mount into another reason to showboat or another list to check off?
The key feature of the famous Lord's Prayer, I think, is not the pattern or its brevity or the specific words that Jesus speaks (although there's lots to learn from these things, of course) -- it's the humility. This is a really humble prayer. Its shortness and its language and its simple choice of requests all point to the heart of a person who knows he's relying entirely on God's mercy - there's no pretense, no bombast, and no willfulness. It is all part of the message of moral humility God is trying to get across, so anyone who thinks:
... has ENTIRELY missed the point. Religious practices don't make you righteous if you do them out of selfish desire to justify yourself or win praise - therefore, wielding the Sermon on the Mount as a tool for belittling others or uplifting yourself is 100% foreign to the spirit God intended. (And I oughta know, having thought similar thoughts quite frequently...)
None of us really thinks of ourselves as greedy. I mean, we never go around introducing ourselves like...
Not that any of the various Bible verses telling us to do so qualify as an unambiguous sign, of course. We're all pretty sure those are intended for someone else. Not that we have a problem with giving anything up. Not that it's an idol or anything. We just really really think God meant the Sultan of Brunei should give up his wealth for the kingdom and not me. Well, we really really hope. Well, I really really hope.
People keep trying to get this part of Matthew 6 to sound comforting, and there is a lot of real comfort there, but I have to be honest: I've always read the "consider the lilies" passage as one of the most cutting and horrifying criticisms in all of Scripture. Why? Well think of it this way:
It's not just working extra hours for a bigger house that God perceives as sinful - even working normal hours to survive, when it excuses a failure to work for the kingdom, is sinful. And that's harsh. That's really harsh.
Except that it's not, of course, when you remember that God promises us he will take care of us if we live the lives he's called us to. He tells us "all these things will be added to you" and we don't believe him. How do I know? Because we don't act like it. The way we spend most of our time is a testament to our total lack of trust. I wonder sometimes if God feels like this:
How is it that I think of myself as a basically good, decent human being again?
And there's a whole 'nother chapter to go! The excitement just never lets up, does it?