May 17, 2015

“What Is the Purpose of Religion?” 5-17-15

Matthew 6:1-18
May 17, 2013

During the past 50 years, it has not been unusual to hear people express criticism of what has come to be known as “Organized Religion” Back in the old days, when I would encounter such people, I would ask if they preferred disorganized religion, which I thought at the time was a rather clever put down of what they were saying.  That, of course did not really answer their concerns, or begin an honest dialogue about their concerns. 
After years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that it is sometimes good to examine the way we, as individuals or as groups of people practice our religion.  It is good to understand why we do what we do and to think about what our methods and our motivations might be as we do those things.  I like to think I have learned this from Jesus. 
During his Ministry on earth, Jesus often said things that were critical of certain people and groups within the Judaism of his day.
Some of those statements are in the Sermon on the Mount.  We have already read the verse of Matthew 5: 20 where Jesus said “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So, we know that those two groups of people were among those whose practice of religion was found to be deficient by Jesus.  In this passage from Matthew 6 we see some reasons why.  But before I lead you in looking at what Jesus said in this passage, I want to inform you that Jesus was not the only one expressing these concerns in his day.  There were other rabbis in the times of Jesus who also expressed similar concerns about the ways in which some people were practicing their religion.  In the Jewish writings of the time, we find that others were saying similar things about how properly to give alms, pray, and fast.
But now it is time to examine what Jesus said.  In the NRSV Jesus is quoted as saying that his followers were to “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.” 
Now there are two issues that I want to deal with in this verse, the first is the English word Piety.  While that is a perfectly good word, I find that it is far enough out of our normal vocabularies today as to be not helpful in our quest to understand what Jesus said.  Instead of Piety, the NIV uses Acts of Righteousness, which is helpful, but expands upon what the Greek word here means.  The Greek says “take heed not to do your righteousness in front of men, in order to be seen by them…”
Now Jesus did not say that we should not live righteously or do righteous things in public, in front of others, he said that we should not do them in front of others for the purpose of being seen by others so they will be impressed by our behavior. 
The second issue I want to deal with in this verse is with the word “reward” as in “for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”  Does this verse and others in the bible teach that God rewards those who follow Him and obey him and believe in him? And if so, is it possible that some of those rewards will be given in heaven or the coming kingdom of God?  Yeah, I think so.  The idea of heaven being a democratic paradise where we will all be equal in status has its roots much more in the political doctrines of the USA than in the bible.  I think the bible teaches that God does give rewards to some and that some of those rewards may be distributed in heaven.  (I do not think any of us REALLY think that we will be equals of Abraham or the Apostle Peter in heaven.)  But our motivation in pleasing God is to be in pleasing him, not in heaping up rewards here or there (more about that in a few weeks).
Now having established that we are not to do good things in order to impress those who may observe us, Jesus then went on to give three examples of how not to do so.
The first involved giving alms, which was a Jewish term for giving financial assistance to the poor.  Such financial assistance is not to be done so that others, including the poor you help, will be impressed by your generosity, but so God will be pleased with your compassion and generosity.  You yourself are also not to be impressed with yourself.  If possible, you are to help the poor so that even you don’t observe yourself (that is the part about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing). 
However, we are to teach and model such giving for our children and others so they can imitate us.  But not praise us for doing what is right.
The second example Jesus gave to them of acts of righteousness is prayer.  Praying is a conversation between a person and God or between a group of people and God.  We are not to pray to impress other people, but to talk to God.
In Jesus’ day, many people prayed their private, personal prayers to God out loud in public places such as the temple courtyard and in the synagogues.  They did so in order to impress those who saw and heard them.  But Jesus said that if our goal in our prayers is to impress other people, then God will not be impressed, no matter how loud, or creative, or long or beautiful our prayers are.  If you pray to impress others, God will not be listening.  When possible, pray in secret, and God will hear in secret and reward you.
This does not rule out public or corporate prayer as in a worship service or in the case of family prayers and prayers of grace before a meal.   We know this because Jesus continued to pray in front of others publicly after he gave this guidance.  Public prayers in worship or at home in front of one’s family are cases when one prays on behalf of everyone present.  But even those are not to be done to impress the others present.
The subject of Prayer was important at that time among Jews.  Each Rabbi was expected to give his followers a sample prayer to follow, and Jesus did so. 
Although we repeat it together in His honor each Sunday, it was probably not His intent that we do so.  The Lord’s Prayer was given to us as an example as to how we should pray.  And it is a balanced prayer. 
It has 6 petitions, strophes or verses.  The first 3 are about God: that His name will be considered the holiest word by all people, that His Kingdom will come and set everything right, and that until that time, that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  
The second 3 petitions are requests of God for the one praying:  that God would give us enough food to eat each day, that He would be forgive us of our not giving him the righteous behavior He asked of us and He would cause us extend our forgiveness to others, and that we would be kept by God from being tempted effectively by evil.
Some have said that the last 3 requests reflect the trinity of God: that supplying Bread and general food supplies are works of general providence accomplished by the Father, that forgiveness is accomplished by the work of the Son, and that guidance away from evil is the work of the Holy Spirit.
There is much more to be said about this example prayer.  But that would be said in a sermon about the Lord’s Prayer, and this is not that sermon.  If you want to hear a sermon solely about the Lord’s Prayer, let me know and I will preach one on another Sunday.
This sermon is about how to practice one’s religion and more specifically why we engage in religious practices.
Which brings us to the third example of how to engage in religious activities.  This one is about fasting, or engaging in periods of not eating.  The practice or rite of fasting was given to the Israelites as a way of disciplining themselves, as a way of expressing grief or sorrow, and as a way of preparing oneself for some revelation from God.
In Jesus’ day, fasting had become a sign of “holy” people.  Many of those who fasted did so publicly so others would know how holy they were.  They would arrange for their stomachs to growl and they would do all they could to appear famished so as to impress others. 
Jesus did not put an end to the practice of fasting, but he did place it in the same category as prayer and providing for the poor: it was to be done privately, not broadcast, again, so they would receive their reward from God, not from the people who observed them.
So then, what does all this teach us about the rites or practices of our religion such as prayer, tithing, assisting the poor, fasting, the devotional reading of our bibles, and the obedience of God’s laws?
That they are given to us to bring us closer to God and not to impress others.  We should not pay a lot of attention to how others feel about how we practice our religion, even those who are helped by our religious activities.  These are given us to strengthen our ties with God and we are to use them to draw closer to Him, not to gain attention from others.


Pastor David L. Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906