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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before February 14, 2016

Matthew 6:1-21

6“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What I Am Learning:

This is the reading for Ash Wednesday for this year, and I want to focus on this reading this week.

This reading always seemed very odd to me. In the Pacific Northwest you are more likely to lose respect if you publicly reveal your religion. If you boast about it you are pretty much considered a dweeb. What was going on in Jesus' day that led him to such a long speech about it?

The social science commentaries tell us that first century Jews lived in what is called an "honor system." Honor is your publicly agreed upon status in the larger community. You maintained your honor, or even increased, by doing what was expected of you. Each person had a culturally defined role and every level of status had expectations of how you were to behave toward others.

Jesus, for instance, would have been expected to keep his eyes down and not to speak when someone with higher honor than him approached. You had to show respect and deference to people of higher honor than you. If that person had become your patron, you would need to publicly praise him (it was always a him, sadly) as he walked down the street.

Your honor rating determined who would do business with you much the way our credit rating determines if we can get a car loan today.

A part of maintaining your honor rating was through public worship of God. God had the highest honor. Maintaining your own honor, in part, depended on you publicly worshiping and honoring God.

The way you honored God was to give alms (give money to benefit the poor), to pray out loud in public and to observe other rituals such as fasting, sacrificing in the Temple and so on.

In verse 19 Jesus explained why he feels the need for this critique. His analysis was that most of the religious behavior in his century had nothing to do with loving God or loving neighbor. Rather it had to do with fitting into the expectations of the people around you AND the larger culture so that you could benefit financially. Most people were more dedicated to obtaining wealth and power than loving God and neighbor.

He said their hearts were focused on their wealth rather than focused on God. That their religion was just another expression of the domination system.

Jesus used the metaphor of "treasure in heaven" to describe the meaning and community that comes from loving God and neighbor. With this metaphor he is not saying that God has a vast bookkeeping department that puts gold in our heavenly account when we do something good. Rather he is saying that true love of God and neighbor is the only eternally valuable thing, the only thing worthy of the devotion of the human heart.

The other part of the problem, was that people in his day assumed that because God was at the top of the honor system, that God put it in place, sanctioned it and enforced it. They made God into an accomplice for their actions.

We often hear people assume that God wants the world to be the way it is.

But in the prayer we call the "Lord's Prayer" Jesus calls his people out on this assumption. He taught his disciples to pray for God's kingdom to come. This implies rather strongly that God's kingdom - God's vision for the world - was in fact not being lived out fully in his day.

Jesus was trying to tell his disciples how even the religious system of their day was supporting a status quo that God did not endorse. They would need to be freed from obeying this system of honor, would need to set aside the expectations of their culture and join him in the purpose of all religion: love of God and love of neighbor.

As Jesus points out throughout his ministry there was rampant violence, disconnection from neighbor and economic in equality.

Jesus' critique is still valid today. How often do we assume that because we sing songs to God, preach sermons about Jesus, and pray to God that God sanctions "the way things are" and our part in it.

Last Thursday I learned more about the fees and fines that people who go through our prisons carry with them out the door. The interest on these debts is 12%. When they can't find a job, they can't pay the monthly installment. When they are in arrears they can be arrested again for not paying. This creates a vicious cycle of debt for these people, a kind of debtor's prison that robs people of their future and their hope for a better one. I am glad to say that because of the advocacy of the Faith Action Network and others, that a bill about this issue will very likely pass this year.

This is just one issue. Imagine what could happen if many more churches, house churches and otherwise, picked one small issue like this, got to know some of these impacted by it,  networked with others and worked for change?

Before you get overwhelmed, though, remember a part of Jesus' prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. This part of the Lord's prayer reminds us that our well-being is a part of this equation.

When you need a break from working on an issue, take a break. When you need to exercise, just do it. When you need to go out and have fun, have some good fun! Jesus is not saying that our lives cannot be full and rich and full of joy.

Domination systems like the one in Jesus's day negatively affected everyone. It negatively affected the 85% of the people who were destitute. It took away a sense of meaning and community among those who benefited from the system. While it impacted some more than others all were affected.

God cares about challenging and replacing domination systems because they crush everyone.

He is saying not to use our religious devotions to bless an unjust status quo but to work for the dignity and well-being of every person. This includes you as you work and wait for God's way of mutuality - the kingdom of God.