Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Does Beyoncé need an introduction?
Does Jesus’ teaching on practicing our piety before others require commentary, particularly on Ash Wednesday?
Jesus seems to mean pretty much what he says, going especially hard upon those who receive credit for their public religiosity. We who write commentary receive small checks, along with brief bibliographic sketches and inclusion in an online index that seems eternal. Preachers make their livings, however modest, by expounding upon Jesus’ words. We have little choice but to make meek in our public reflections upon these words.
These admonitions are as characteristic of Jesus and his ministry as anything else he says or does. Only a few particulars set Jesus’ ministry apart. Rather than setting up a base of operations, he traveled, building community wherever he went. He gathered disciples, setting twelve apart as apostles. He built a reputation as a healer and exorcist. His teaching gathered crowds and provoked controversy, especially because he possessed no central base of operations authority, no traditional foundation for authority. Something was up with food: Jesus sparked controversy when he was invited to meals, people complained about his table company, and he associated eating with the reign of God. For a religious leader, Jesus seems remarkably suspicious of the marks of religion.
With respect to the passage under consideration, Jesus may or may not have been particularly pious. Some Gospels emphasize his prayer life, some suggest he routinely attended synagogue, John presents him as a regular at the Jerusalem festivals. But the Gospels all show Jesus in conflict with the Temple authorities. To the point of those reading: Jesus received criticism for keeping company with tax collectors and other kinds of sinners, but he initiated all sorts of conflict with the publicly righteous. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus informs would-be disciples that those who wish to know the kingdom of heaven must attain a righteousness higher than that of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20).
This reading from Matthew crashes into our current cultural moment precisely on this point: public righteousness. It is easy to mock ostentatious piety of the individualized variety. I don’t put religious decals on my car because I’m bound to cut someone off in traffic, prompting them to associate my public display of Jesus love with my moment of thoughtlessness. Better to turn down the volume than to create an opportunity for offense.
We can imagine easier targets. As I type this morning, a friend just quipped that his ability to book a flight under winter storm conditions proves there is a God. We hear the same from people who are not joking, people whose public displays of piety are self-congratulatory more than anything else. It is as if Jesus’ words should accompany their lives as annoying subtitles.
But something more dangerous is at stake. More than ever before, the discourse of piety has become a weapon of social advantage. It’s used to enfranchise some people and disempower others. Here we preachers had best be alert: “Watch out!” says Jesus (Matthew 6:1). In this instance we should practice restraint, castigating those who disagree with us as little as possible, even the powerful ones.
Let the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount be our guide. First, however forbidding Jesus’ words, it appears he really means what he says. “Don’t even think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17), in case we were wondering. “You have heard it said … but I tell you.” Immediately prior to our reading we hear, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Christians have spent centuries spiritualizing our way around Jesus’ words, but the Sermon closes with the parable of the houses built on the rock and on the sand. Maybe he means it.
At times, however, we must pray out loud. The gay or lesbian teen who has been rejected by Christian parents needs our out loud Christian blessing. Welcoming Syrian refugees, let us wear our church t-shirts and bless them in the name of Jesus. The point of discernment lies earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes: who benefits from these public displays? If they contribute to our spiritual bona fixes, let us dispense with them. If they bless the lowly, comfort the grieving, or do right by those who hunger and thirst for justice, then let us sin boldly.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount locates us at the vanishing boundary that distinguishes the attitudinal from the behavioral. The psychologists say we can change our behaviors by changing our attitudes, and we can transform our attitudes by reforming our habits. This reading from Matthew begins and ends with the attitudinal: Jesus warns would-be disciples to “Watch out,” and he instructs them where to store their treasure. When it comes to public piety, discernment lies in the attitudinal. There’s no dodging discernment, but Jesus does provide a rule of thumb: Watch out.