The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
In the context of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).
He doesn’t say “if,” He says “when.” When you give to the needy, several things happen. You obey God, which is of course a meet thing to do. You care for your neighbor who is need, which we know we should do. And, you also train your body not to need so much stuff.
I can tell you to obey God, and you won’t get upset with me.
I can tell you to care for those who are in need, and you’ll agree with me nine times out of ten.
But if I tell you to train your body to need less and fewer things, if I tell you to store up treasure in heaven by giving away your earthly treasures here and now, you’ll want me to stop preaching. Well, guess what…
In the context of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and…pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words…Pray then like this: Our Father…” (Matthew 6:5-9).
He doesn’t say “if,” He says “when.” When you pray, several things happen. You obey God, which is of course right. You care for your neighbor who is need, praying that God meet His need, which we know we should do. And, you also train your body to trust in God’s name and not your own.
I can tell you to pray out of obedience to God, and you won’t get upset.
I can tell you to pray for the whole Church in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their need, and you’ll agree with me.
But if I tell you to train your body to trust in God’s name and not your own, if I tell you that your name isn’t holy, that no one worships you, that naked you came in to this world and naked you will go (cf. Job 1:21), you might want me to stop preaching. Well, guess what…
In the context of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
He doesn’t say “if,” He says “when.” When you fast, several things happen. You obey God, which is of course salutary. You care for your neighbor who is in need, replacing time spent feeding your face with hearing and speaking and living God’s Word. Of course fasting helps you serve your neighbor! But you also train your body not to need or crave or, dare I say it, over-indulge.
As a man who can put away some food, I’m saying all of this as much to myself as I am to you.
I can tell you to obey God, and you’ll rejoice that you have something to do.
I can tell you to serve your neighbor, and you’ll host a barbecue. Interestingly enough, when you feed the poor one of two things happen.
One, you feed them terrible food, not wanting to waste your own possessions. This is when you fill the food bank with an old pack of cheap crackers, a can of pumpkin pie filling, and two packs of “Raft” macaroni and cheese. After all, Jesus teaches us to feed the poor, but He doesn’t tell us to feed them as well as we eat, right?
Or two, you feed the poor and feast. There’s no better way to fill the need to feed yourself than to simultaneously feed others. Then, the excess isn’t for you (but it is), it’s for others (but it’s not). Maybe it was just my family growing up, but Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter seemed more an excuse to eat dangerous amounts of food than they were to give thanks, worship Christ, and celebrate His resurrection.
So if I tell you to train your body to need less, if I tell you to fast, to replace the occasional meal with God’s Word and a Lutheran hymn, you’ll just wait for me to stop preaching. Well, guess what…
Today, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and [mammon]” (Matthew 6:24).
It’s not just money. Perhaps Jesus’ words are better understood if we say, “You cannot serve God and.”
Most who actually heard Jesus speak these words didn’t consider a life devoted to material gain at odds with a life devoted to God. Mammon refers simply to property or anything of value, but in Jesus’ teaching, it’s dangerous and tainted.
In a way, Jesus reinterprets the word for us.
St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “If you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey” (Romans 6:16).
So if you refuse to give to the needy, you are a servant not of God and your neighbor but of yourself.
If you refuse to pray, you are a servant not of God and your neighbor but of yourself.
And if you refuse to fast, you are a servant not of God and your neighbor but of yourself.
Jesus very much is teaching us what to do with our stuff. The most prudent way to handle mammon is to give it away.
Oh, but don’t we worry that we’ll run out.
“I can’t give to the needy. I might have to have less-than-a-brand-new-car. I might have to take less than five vacations this year. I might have to watch local tv channels.”
“I can’t pray for my neighbor, I’m busy. I’m tired. I forgot. It’s not that big a deal anyway, God knows what we need.”
“I can’t give to the needy the whole chicken I was going to eat. I’ll just give a nice canned chicken. It’s just as good. They should be thankful.”
We’re so afraid to go without.
We don’t realize that our refusal to give, pray, and fast is a refusal to believe in God.
Giving to the needy, giving to the church, is a faith issue. Praying, fasting, it all has to do with whether you love and serve God or yourself.
Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” (cf. Matthew 6:25-31).
There’s an important phrase in there: the grass of the field.
On the drive between here and the boot camp, there are a lot of open fields, and in the spring and early summer, it’s a wondrous sight to behold. The fields and flowers and colors, it’s beautiful.
But the “grass of the field” was a standard image for something that was worthless. Jesus deliberately stresses the paradox between the glorious beauty of the flowers and their final insignificance.
In spring, the beauty of the flowers stuns us. In late summer, we scrunch up our noses at the ugliness of dead flowers.
So consider this: you are more valuable to God than birds and flowers. God created the birds and the flowers, but He did not become a bird or a flower. That which He became, He redeemed.
The fact of the incarnation alone should remove our life’s anxiety.
God made Man last, gave him dominion over creation, and became man so as to redeem him.
What do the birds need that they don’t have? What do the flowers need that God doesn’t give?
And you are infinitely more valuable than they.
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [and here that’s the unbelievers who still eat bread daily, they] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).
In the context of today’s Gospel lesson, in the prayer that Jesus teaches, we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).
Just as we give to the needy to train our bodies to need fewer things.
And just as we pray to God to train our bodies not to trust in ourselves.
And just as we fast to train our bodies not to need as much.
We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” not so that we get daily bread. “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving” (Small Catechism, Fourth Petition). To train our bodies to receive from God all that He gives. To seek first His kingdom, His rule, His reign, His Word. And give thanks for all else that we receive each day.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!