When You Fast (Matthew 6.16–18), Part 1


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Over the next few days, I want to talk to you about fasting. “Throughout Scripture,” writes Richard J. Foster, “fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.” I will discuss those purposes later, but today I want to focus on what Jesus says about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. There we read:

 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men 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.”

The “hypocrites” Jesus refers to are the Pharisees, who practiced fasting regularly. We get a hint of how regularly in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the Pharisee proudly informs God, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18.12), probably on Monday and Thursday.

Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with fasting twice a week. If such fasting helps you draw closer to God, then by all means go ahead and do so. (On the other hand, if you have medical problems—such as diabetes or an eating disorder—and you choose to fast, you should do so only with your doctor’s permission and under medical supervision.) The problem arises when fasting becomes a badge of spiritual honor that you proudly display to others. What Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount is fasting to be seen by others rather than to be seen by God alone.

The basic purpose of fasting and other spiritual disciplines is to draw closer to the Spirit of God. You cannot do this wholeheartedly if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder to see whether people are noticing how spiritual you are. That’s the problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. He stands up in the middle of a crowd and prays aloud about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” His spirituality consists of comparing himself to others, and by that standard, he comes off pretty good.

Of course, the real standard is the glory of God, against which we all have fallen short (Romans 3.23). The tax collector understands this perfectly: “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18.13). When he says this, the tax collector is standing “at a distance,” away from others, not wishing to draw attention to himself, alone.

If we take Jesus’ commandment about fasting literally, no one will ever know that we are fasting. True fasting begins, it seems, when we fast our need for the attention of others. But God will notice, and that’s what really matters.

When You Pray (Matthew 6.5–15), Part 1


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In Mathew 6.5–15, Jesus teaches his followers about the spiritual discipline of prayer. As we read that passage, four questions arise: How often should we pray? Where should we pray? Should we use patterned prayers? And what should we pray for?

First, how often should we pray?

Jesus does not say. In Matthew 6.5, he begins, “And when you pray…,” then talks about where to pray. Jesus assumes we will pray; he does not tell us how often.

Jesus’ own life suggests an answer, however. According to Luke 5.16, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke does not quantify the word often, but his words indicate that Jesus prayed at regular intervals. I think we can safely assume that Jesus observed the set hours of prayer practiced by his fellow Jews. Several clues point in that direction:

  • Jesus’ parents kept the Old Testament laws regarding circumcision, purification, presentation of infants to the Lord, and sacrifice, as “the custom of the Law required” (Luke 2.21–27).
  • Not only that, according to Luke 2.41–42, they went to Jerusalem every year for Passover, “according to the custom.”
  • Luke 4.16 tells us that Jesus “went to Nazareth…and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.”
  • According to Acts 2.42, the early church members “devoted themselves…to the prayers.” (Without explanation, the NIV translates the Greek plural with an English singular.) The prayers most likely refers to set hours of prayer observed throughout the day.
  • Finally, according to Acts 17.2, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”
 What emerges from these clues is that Jesus, instructed by his parents and imitated by his protégés, faithfully practiced Jewish customs, including Sabbath observance, synagogue attendance, and prayer. If we want to experience God through prayer, we ought to follow Jesus’ example.

At minimum, this means making time for biblical meditation and prayer twice daily. Psalm 1.1–2 tells us that the person whom God blesses “meditates on his law day and night.” And in Psalm 88.1–2, the psalmist exclaims, “O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you.”

Going further, it means praying whenever a need arises. According to James 5.13–14, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him….”

Ultimately—when we have developed good spiritual habits—prayer will come to us as naturally as breathing; that is, we will always be praying. Consider Luke 18.1: “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Or Ephesians 6.18: “pray in the Spirit on all occasionsalways keep on praying.” Or 1 Thessalonians 5.17: “pray continually.”

So, how often should we pray? Routinely, occasionally, and always!

When You Give to the Needy (Matthew 6.1–4), Part 2


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“When you give to the needy,” Jesus tells us, “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” (Matt. 6.3–4). Obviously, Jesus is speaking facetiously here. The ability to keep a secret from yourself is not a moral virtue; it’s a mental disorder. Jesus’ point is that our motivation to give should be a desire for divine approval rather than human applause.

And yet, Jesus assumes what I am not sure we can take for granted any more, namely, that we are giving. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald J. Sider writes:

“In 1968, the average church member gave 3.1 percent of their income—less than a third of a tithe [10% of one’s gross income]. That figure dropped every year through 1990 and then recovered slightly to 2.66 percent—about one quarter of a tithe.

“Even more interesting is what is happening to evangelical giving. The Ronsvalles [authors of The State of Christian Giving] compare the giving in seven typical mainline denominations…with the giving in eight evangelical denominations…. In 1968 the eight evangelical denominations gave considerably more than the seven mainline denominations. While the mainline denominational members gave 3.3 percent of their income, evangelicals gave 6.15 percent. While this is significantly more, the evangelicals on average still gave less than two-thirds of a tithe. By 1985 mainline folk had dropped their giving to 2.85 percent of their income and evangelicals to 4.74 percent. By 2001, mainline members had recovered slightly to 3.17 percent, but evangelical giving kept dropping and was at a mere 4.27 percent.”

Sider draws two conclusions from these statistics:

(1) The spending patterns of evangelical Christians are becoming more self-centered and less generous. “As we got richer and richer, evangelicals chose to spend more and more on themselves and give a smaller and smaller percentage to the church. Today, on average, evangelicals in the United States give about two-fifths of a tithe.”

(2) Evangelical Christians are missing an incredible opportunity to change the world. “American Christians live in the richest nation on earth and enjoy an average household income of $42,409…. The Ronsvalles point out that if American Christians just tithed, they would have another $143 billion available to empower the poor and spread the gospel. Studies by the United Nations suggest that just an additional $70–$80 billion a year would be enough to provide access to essential services like basic health care and education for all the poor of the earth. If they did no more than tithe, American Christians would have the private dollars to foot this entire bill and still have $60-$70 billion to do evangelism around the world.”

Those statistics challenged me. Let me, in turn, challenge you. This year, tithe to your church so that it can spread the gospel and help the poor, both in your community and around the world.

When You Give to the Needy (Matthew 6.1–4), Part 1


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Several Christmases ago, my wife (then fiancée) and I took in a play at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa. It was opening night for the theater’s twenty-fifth annual staging of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Even though I knew the story line backward and forward, I still thrilled at Ebenezer Scrooge’s moment of conversion—when he wakes up, realizes it’s Christmas day, and trades in his miserly ways for a joyful generosity.

During intermission, I got another glimpse of generosity in action. Like all theaters, SCR is funded by two sources: ticket sales and voluntary donations. One wall of the theater lobby proudly displayed the names of various Orange County notables who have donated money to SCR. As I looked at those names, I began to ponder how exhilarating it would be to look at the wall and see my name upon it: “George P. Wood, Extremely Wealthy Guy Whose Money Single-handedly Keeps the Actors Employed.”

I don’t know whether a desire for recognition motivated any of SCR’s patrons. I only know that such a desire lurks inside of me. Does it lurk inside you? It certainly motivated many of Jesus’ contemporaries.

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” Jesus said. “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 men. I tell you the truth, 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” (Matt. 6.1–4).

Reading this passage, I ask myself three questions: (1) Am I giving to the needy? (2) What is my motivation for doing so? And (3) what reward will I receive for my generosity? We’ll look at question 1 tomorrow, but today, focus on questions 2 and 3.

What is my motivation for giving to the needy? Jesus offers two possible motivations: to be seen by men and to be seen by God. In the former case, we give because we want others to know that we are givers. We want others to think of us as rich and generous. In the latter case, we give because we want to please God. For Jesus, these motivations are mutually exclusive.

And they lead to two different rewards. The person who gives in order to be seen by men receives his reward “in full.” He achieves a philanthropic reputation in this life, but that’s it. The person who gives secretly, however, receives a divine reward in this life and the life to come. Others may not know him, but God knows him. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?

Be Careful (Matthew 6.1)


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If we want to follow Jesus Christ, we must practice a righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matt. 5.20). Such righteousness is not a legalistic obedience to the letter of the law; it is a wholehearted desire to live out the spirit of the law (5.21–48). It also entails practicing an authentic spirituality. As Jesus says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6.1).

How do we practice our spirituality authentically? By giving generously to the poor (6.2–4), praying to our Heavenly Father (6.5–15), fasting (6.16–18), and using our material possessions wisely (6.19­–34), among other actions. But authentic spirituality also involves performing these actions with the right motivation: to be rewarded by God rather than to be praised by men.

As I read Jesus’ words, I find myself asking two questions: Do I practice the spiritual disciplines of generosity, prayer, fasting, and stewardship? If so, why—what is my motivation?

First, “Do I practice the disciplines?” Generosity, prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines are habits we must develop to become the kind of people God wants us to be. Prayer and fasting remind us of our overriding need for God, for his tangible and spiritual blessings. Generosity to the poor reminds us that there is a greater purpose to wealth than mere acquisition—namely, meeting others’ needs and making the world a better place. Without disciplines such as generosity, prayer, and fasting, we cannot love God with all our being; nor can we love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22.37, 39).

Second, “Why do I practice the disciplines? What is my motivation?” Jesus offers two possible answers: to be seen by men or to be seen by God. People who practice the disciplines to be seen by men are looking for a temporary spiritual reputation. But people who practice them to be seen by God are looking for an eternal spiritual relationship. According to Jesus, both groups will get what they want (Matt. 6.2, 5, 15), but only the latter group will receive what all of us truly need—the reward of heaven (6.4, 6, 18).

So, do you practice the spiritual disciplines? Why? Your answers to these questions are important if you want to follow Jesus Christ.

Love Your Enemies (Matthew 5.43–48), Part 2


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Do you have enemies?

If you don’t, consider yourself lucky. If you do, loving them probably isn’t an urgent item in your daily agenda, but it should be. Consider Jesus’ commandment: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5.44–45).

How do we love our enemies? First, tell the truth about them—they exist, they have harmed us, and they are morally responsible for their actions. Loving our enemies does not require denying or rationalizing away the hurt.

Such morally clear-sighted honesty is hard to come by in our ethically fuzzy age. Who are we to judge another’s actions, after all? We are morally competent adults who know the difference between right and wrong, for starters. And we have experienced firsthand the harm caused by others’ wrong actions. As such, we are qualified to name our enemies and evaluate their actions.

Second, choose to love them. What a difficult choice that is! Not long ago, I saw a documentary about a woman who had been sexually abused by her father when she was very young. For years, she simply avoided him, but finally she decided to confront him. The video of that confrontation was painful to watch. Worse, the father denied that what he had done was wrong. Unfortunately, her confrontation did not lead to his repentance; neither did it lead to a resolution of her deep and eminently justifiable anger at her dad.

We cannot hold onto our anger forever, though. If we try, it will destroy us. So, if for no other reason than our own spiritual and psychological wellbeing, we must learn to love our enemies and turn our anger into forgiveness. This is a hard choice and it should not be rushed into. Sometimes, we need to feel the anger first. But then, love.

What does enemy-love consist of? “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13.4–8a). When you have been honest about your enemies, use Paul’s description of love as a checklist of the choices you must begin to make.

Ultimately, the strength to love our enemies must come from a power greater than our own. That is why Jesus commanded us to pray for them. What we cannot do, God can. So, how should we pray for our enemies? Pray that they stop hurting us and that God protect us from them. Pray that they acknowledge and repent of their harmful behaviors. Pray that their hearts be open to God’s amazing grace. Pray that reconciliation be achieved. And pray that your love play a role—however small—in the fulfillment of these other prayers.

Love Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), Part 1




Aristotle defined justice as treating equals equally and unequals unequally. On his definition, God is unjust, for he treats unequals equally. And he expects us to do the same. 

Consider Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5.43–48). 

Tomorrow I will write about how to love your enemies, but today I want to write about why we ought to love them. 

Notice what Jesus says: 

First, he articulates the principle of justice as it was understood in his day: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This is simply another way of saying, “Treat equals equally (with love) and unequals unequally (with hatred).” 

Second, he offers his own understanding of “perfection”: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, he commands us to treat our enemies (unequals) as our neighbors (equals). 

Third, he offers several reasons for practicing this perfection: (1) God treats unequals equally: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (2) Treating unequals equally is a family characteristic, so to speak. Those who claim to be God’s children must act like him (“that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”). (3) God’s children practice a righteousness that exceeds not only that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5.20) but also that of the tax collectors and pagans. Jesus’ question—“What are you doing more than others?”—is a constant challenge to our moral mediocrity. 

God’s moral excellence, you see, does not consist of mere justice. Paul writes, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5.6–8). God’s moral excellence consists of grace, which forgives the unjust and empowers them to practice righteousness. Paul, again: “you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6.22). 

In eternity, there will be absolute justice. What else are heaven and hell for? But for now, God practices grace—a seeming “injustice” that is actually good news for everyone.

Do Not Resist an Evil Person (Matthew 5.38–42), Part 2


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Yesterday, I drew a distinction between the way of justice and the way of mercy, between the state punishing sin (Rom. 13.4) and the church reforming sinners (2 Cor. 5.18–19). Each way accomplishes God’s purposes, although for the Christian, the way of mercy must take precedence at the present time because Christ came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5.32).

But how should we practice the way of mercy? Jesus offers several examples: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5.39–42).

Counterexamples spring quickly to mind: If a woman is attacked by a rapist, should she let him have his way with her? If you rear-end a car and its owner sues you for the cost of repairs, should you give him twice as much as he asks? If the government drafts your oldest son into the Army, should you send your youngest son along with him? If a stranger asks for a $50,000 loan, should you mortgage your house to provide him the money?

If you, like me, answered each question with a resounding “No!” then you understand the dilemmas inherent in the way of mercy. Practicing mercy—giving people better than what they deserve, especially when they deserve worse—is an unnatural act. And we don’t like to act unnaturally.

Which is why I try to reflect often on the case of Madge Rodda and James Bridle. Madge is 4’11”, a grandmother, and a church organist. James is the man who attacked her one Sunday in a Denny’s restroom and slit her throat.

Summoned to the hospital after the attack, Madge’s daughter Rosalee says, “With the damage to her throat, she could barely speak. Yet she was speaking. So I leaned over her bloodied body, putting my ear next to her lips. She said something which both surprised and inspired me: ‘That poor man. That poor man. We must find a way of getting him a Bible.’ She was referring to her assailant!”

When she recovered, Madge made contact with James, gave him a Bible, and led him to Christ. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times asked her how she found the strength to do all this: “It’s my nature to hold a grudge,” she said. “I can remember things from years and years ago that everyone else has probably forgotten. This wasn’t natural, it was supernatural.”

So, should we resist those who harm us? Yes, the way of justice demands it, and it comes naturally to us. But resistance is not our only option. Beyond justice lies mercy and beyond natural ability lies the supernatural power of God.

Do Not Resist an Evil Person (Matthew 5.38–42)


How should we respond to a person who hurts us?
 
There are two ways: the way of justice and the way of mercy. In Matthew 5.38–42, Jesus instructs his disciples to follow the way of mercy:
 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do no resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
 
We see the way of justice in the phrase, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” This phrase appears several times in the Old Testament law (Ex. 21.22–25, Lev. 24.17–22, Deut. 19.15–21). It expresses in vivid language the principle that the punishment should fit the crime—no more, no less. It is a basic principle of justice. And putting the way of justice into practice is one of the reasons God created human governments. In Romans 13.4, Paul writes, “[the government] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
 
By contrast, we see the way of mercy in Jesus’ instructions to “turn to him the other [cheek] also,” “let him have your cloak as well,” “go with him two miles,” and “give to the one who asks you.” In these examples, the wrongdoer is given what he does not by justice deserve. Indeed, he is given the exact opposite of what he deserves.
 
Three questions quickly come to mind: (1) Who does Jesus expect to practice the way of mercy? (2) Why does he expect them to do so? And (3) how does he expect them to do so?
 
First, Jesus expects the church—not the state, not unbelievers—to practice the way of mercy. Much confusion arises when this passage is applied to the state and to unbelievers. If, as Paul writes, the state bears the sword for the purpose of punishing wrongdoers, it cannot turn a blind eye to violence and injustice. It must act in the defense of the innocent. And Jesus’ entire sermon is addressed to his disciples, to show them their proper manner of living (Matt. 5.20).
 
Jesus expects the church to act in this way because he came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5.32), and the church is the primary bearer of his message (2 Cor. 5.18–19). The state keeps peace by punishing sin, the church by reforming sinners. Each serves God in its own way.
 
How does Jesus expect us to practice the way of mercy? I’ll return to that subject tomorrow.

Do Not Swear at All (Matthew 5.33­–37)


(This post was originally written in 2005.)
 
Did President George W. Bush disobey Jesus Christ at his inauguration this past Thursday?
 
According to Matthew 5.33–37, Jesus said, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
 
On Thursday, Chief Justice William Rehnquist led President Bush in reciting the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Like every president since George Washington, Bush concluded his recitation with four little words: “So help me God.”
 
Jesus said not to swear at all. Bush swore an oath of office. Jesus said not to swear by anything. Bush swore by God’s help. So he disobeyed Jesus’ direct commandments, right?
 
You might be surprised to learn that throughout the history of the church, rigorist Christian groups have concluded that swearing oaths is in fact a sin. During the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, for example, a number of radical reformers prohibited their followers from swearing oaths in court and swearing oaths of office.
 
The mainstream reformers rejected this legalistic understanding of Jesus’ words, however, and for a simple reason: Jesus himself swore an oath under God! In Matthew 26.63–64, we read: “The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” Unless we are willing to charge Jesus with obeying himself, we should probably not charge President Bush with doing so.
 
This conclusion should be obvious. It is common sense. So why did Jesus use such extreme language? What precisely was his point? Simply this: We should be men and women of our words.
 
Look at what Jesus said in Matthew 23.18: “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” The “blind guides” were “teachers of the law and Pharisees” (23.13). They generated legalistic distinctions so that a person could swear an oath without really meaning to abide by it. For Jesus, this legalism was demonic. For Jesus, yes was yes and no was no. Period. And he expected such integrity of speech from those of us who follow him, whether we’re plumbers or presidents of the United States.

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