Matthew 6–7: “He Taught Them as One Having Authority” #BCCSundaySchool2019

The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
  –TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

We are now on week two of the Sermon on the Mount, and, like week one, there is no way that we could cover everything that needs to be covered in one blog post. But one blog post is all we (read: I) have time for this week, so we will have to make do. We must make choices–difficult choices–to make sure that all of the highlights get hit. So I am going to trace one theme and one rhetorical style through the two chapters, with an emphasis on Chapter 6, which I think is the more important.

First, the theme, which is given in the epigraph from T.S. Eliot: doing the right deed for the wrong reason.

In Matthew 6, Jesus lays out three “right deeds” that people can do–things, in fact, that people must do according to Jewish law. And her presents them in parallel constructions that do almost all of the work of interpreting them for us. I will use the NSRV text to create the parallel structure, as the NSRV takes the extra step of including subheadings:


Concerning Almsgiving
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. “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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-4)

Concerning Prayer
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. But 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. 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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt. 6:5-8)

Concerning Fasting
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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so 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. (Matt. 6: 16-18)

In each of these passages, Jesus follows the same formula. He announces his topic, which, in every case, is a morally good, spiritually valuable practice that everybody ought to be doing more of. Then he gives a negative definition of the practice–he explains how not to do it. Then he explains the correct way to do it. In every case, the wrong way to do it has the same motive: to be seen by others as righteous.

The warning here could not be clearer: the gospel cannot become a public performance, nor can it ever be the basis of unrighteous pride. Once this happens, it stops being the gospel. And all of the good things we think and do become millstones around our necks that drag us away from the Kingdom of God.

This is one of those things that we know intellectually but rarely accept spiritually because we are human beings, and human beings spend pretty much all of their free time looking for reasons to think well of themselves. And thinking well of ourselves invariably requires that we think badly of somebody else–and that we figure out ways to make other people think well of us and badly of them as well. We can call this “pride,” but a better term might be “the natural human being,” who is carnal, sensual, devilish, and an enemy to God.

And here is the meanest trick: anything that is valued within a culture or subculture can become a source of pride: wealth, education, physical attractiveness to be sure, but also: being a good parent, not drinking or smoking, not having sex, not thinking about having sex, not wearing clothing that makes other people think about having sex, not caring about who has sex, going, reading the scriptures, reading the scriptures in an unapproved translation, attending meetings, paying tithing, doing service, being the bishop, following the prophet, not following the prophet, thinking for ourselves, loving people, being accepting of everybody, and so on.

You get the picture. It is a trap, and it is the worst sort of trap because the whole mechanism takes our best inclinations and uses them to turn us into the worst sort of person. And Jesus is clear about the results: we get what we want most. If that is the Kingdom of God, we can have it. If it is praise, we can have that too. And if it is just that self-righteous feeling when we look around and realize that we are more righteous (or more anything else) than other people, well then, that’s what we get.

And look at the rhetorical style that Jesus uses to make these points. Consider the following phrases:

  • Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you. (6:2)
  • 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. (6:7)
  • 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. (6:16)
  • Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (7:3)
  • Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine. (7:8)

These are deeply ironic passages. And they are funny. Somebody coming to a synagogue with a trumpet and blowing it before he gives a donation? That’s funny. Somebody who is fasting going around with a disfigured face to show how hungry they are? That’s funny. Like all good teachers, Jesus was a funny guy, and he knew how to use humor to drive his point home. And like all good Jewish teachers, his humor was based in verbal irony, word play, comic exaggeration, and, well irony.

This is important because, if we don’t get the joke, we can spend a lot of time trying to find a non-ironic interpretation. I have heard, like, ten different readings in my life of that bit about the camel going through the eye of the needle (Matt. 19:23). People say that “eye of the needle” was the name of Jerusalem’s back door, or that there were special needles at the time that a camel could technically pass through–all to avoid the patently obvious fact that Jesus, who was a funny guy, was joking.

Which brings me to the last passage, which I have so far elided: the “Lord’s Prayer,” which comes in the bit about praying in your closet:

“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
       on earth as it is in heaven.
   Give us this day our daily bread.
   And forgive us our debts,
       as we also have forgiven our debtors.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial,
       but rescue us from the evil one.

There is lots to say about this prayer. Many religious traditions use it as a set, recited prayer, and others (such as the LDS tradition) use it as a sort of outline for how a prayer should be organized. But most commentators miss the most obvious point about it: it is short–a sort prayer included in a passage about not giving long prayers. The Lord’s prayer is less than 60 words long–which, I would propose, should be a rule-of-thumb maximum for all public prayers at every level of the Church. (And yes, I am being ironic, because I’m trying to be like Jesus).

This all, I think, gets to the title of the lesson, found in Matthew 7:29: Jesus taught as one having authority, not as the scribes. This means that he didn’t sound like everybody else. He didn’t give long, wordy prayers. He didn’t talk in a pseudo-scriptural voice with outdated pronounce and archaic verb forms. He didn’t try to mimic the most respected figures in his religious culture. He was short, to the point, and real.

Be ye, therefore, just like that.

Comments

  1. My takeaway: Jesus was pithy and funny. Be like Jesus.

  2. Between the “meanest trick” that anything valued in the culture can be its own reward (the deep lesson), and the 60 word maximum proposal (for which I would drop the “irony” label because I’m convinced most if not all longer prayers are “to be seen” prayers), this ought to be broadcast!

  3. I think one of the best compliments a friend gave about my dad was that he could say everything he had to in a prayer without taking up very much time. I still aspire to that standard.

  4. Matt 6:1-18 hits me a little harder when I consider the possibility that the hypocrites (likely Pharisees, considering Matt 5:20) were not selfish. Pharisee (meaning “to separate”) formed among common people, to fight unrighteousness from Hellenization and Paganism encroaching into Jewish society. They were not founded as wealthy or elite political leaders. They fought the apostasy of the Sadducees, who they felt ignored the words of the prophets and did not believe in the resurrection. Pharisees founded public charities, and encouraged prayer outside the temple by meeting weekly and establishing synagogues. They believed the Messiah would one day replace the corrupt leadership of their people, but believed in changing society through their teaching and example in preparation for that time.

    There were firm standards to become a Pharisee, paying tithing, and doing good works under observation for a period of time. Praying in the streets, publicly offering, and demonstrating fasting were all part of the Pharisees’ plan to lead the people to righteousness through example. They believed that they had a good cause, but in pursuing a good cause they changed these acts that should individually bind us to God into a public performance. Praise led to individual pride, but certainly group pride as well. Perpetuating the goals of the group became their top priority, and their identity as holy people was tied to this group. If I consider that “being an example”, “perfecting the Saints,” or “improving the image of the Church” might motivate my behaviors more than having a heart for God, these scriptures make me realize how far I have to go.

  5. Jared Livesey says:

    Michael,

    If we believe Jesus was prone to hyperbole – call it “comic exaggeration” if you like – then which of his words might be trusted in? And what is the principled distinction between the stuff he actually meant literally, as opposed to the stuff he was only kidding about?

    If keeping his commandments is literally and without irony the entirety of the faith of Jesus Christ, meaning one is saved if and only if one actually executes all of Jesus’s commandments, wouldn’t anything less than his complete and utter truth tend to undermine the absolute confidence one must necessarily have in him and his words in order to do what he said to do in the Sermon on the Mount?

    If we believe Jesus was prone to saying things just to jazz up or motivate or entertain his audience without regard to the truth value of his words, then what, in principle, do we believe separates Jesus’s words from the words of any other human whose income is dependent upon getting people to act in certain ways? Could we be justly blamed for treating his words the same as any other salesman, lawyer, or politician?

    To respond with the observation that Jesus used similitudes in his teaching will not address the thrust of these questions, for Jesus explained the meaning of his parables fully to those who trusted in and followed him and asked him, while leaving the others in the dark. And we needn’t worry about straining at gnats and swallowing camels, for we understand what it means to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  6. Michael Austin says:

    Jared,

    The answer, which may not be satisfying, but which I think is correct, is that understanding irony in texts is one of the things that good and careful readers have to learn how to do in order to read just about anything. This means understanding genre, audience, a thing or two about original languages and historical contexts. And it means reading the text in multiple translations and perhaps sampling some portion of the enormous body of commentary that has been produced on these verses in the past millennium or two.

    The irony markers are not difficult to see, and they often (but do not always) survive translation into a different language. But it takes some effort to incorporate them into a coherent reading of any given text. But making this kind of effort is what it means to make a dedicated study of the scripture. This, I suspect, is why we are asked to continually study the scriptures, which means more than just reading them the same way over and over again. We have to learn new things and bring that knowledge to every reading.

    I am not generally a fundamentalist when it comes to scriptural interpretation. But I am fine with people who are fundamentalists as long as they are also good and careful readers of the text. But fundamentalism mixed with bad reading is a dangerous combination that has lead to a fair bit of the misery that the world has seen and continues to experience.

  7. Michael, I like it — and the response to Jared. But the comments on irony would likely be lost on most of my Gospel Doctrine class because they wouldn’t know what you mean. That’s not because none are careful readers, but because, as “[t]he historical record shows [,] irony and ironic have been used imprecisely for almost 100 years at least… “ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ironic . As a result, using it precisely often does not communicate precisely. If in Sunday School I called these “deeply ironic passages” many would think I meant Jesus didn’t mean what he said, rather than hearing a comment on the exaggerated setup for what he was saying. Maybe I don’t understand “ironic” either, but, in any event, “comic” and “exaggeration” seem more generally understood.

    BTW, while my mind was busy conflating the instruction against trumpet blowing to announce alms giving, with praying in public to be seen, I thought also of Joel 2:15-17 and its instruction to “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children… Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say [pray], Spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach…” Maybe we should do a little more trumpet blowing in another context. I rather like this one from the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable event in 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lg63HLoZC7I

  8. “If keeping his commandments is literally and without irony the entirety of the faith of Jesus Christ, meaning one is saved if and only if one actually executes all of Jesus’s commandments…”

    That’s a big if. A faith that goes no further than strict, transactional obedience is not, the faith of Jesus, in my experience.

  9. Jared Livesey says:

    JKC,

    That one is saved if and only if one keeps all the commandments of Jesus Christ is not a hidden teaching. One of the primary purposes of the Book of Mormon to make the conditions of salvation known.

    1 Nephi 13:40-41, Earliest Text

    And the angel spake unto me, saying:
    These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles
    shall establish the truth of the first,
    which is of the twelve apostles of the Lamb,
    and shall make known the plain and precious things
    which have been taken away from them
    and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people,
    that the Lamb of God is the the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world
    and that all men must come unto him or they cannot be saved.

    And they must come according to the words
    which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb.

    And the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed
    as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
    Wherefore they both shall be established in one,
    for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.

    The words which Jesus established by his own mouth in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon is the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is the words by which all mankind must come to Jesus. The Sermon is the commandments of God.

    And the commandments of God are to be kept as they are written, as Alma commanded Helaman.

    Alma 37:20 Therefore I command you, my son Helaman, that ye be diligent in fulfilling all my words, and that ye be diligent in keeping the commandments of God as they are written.

    Jesus explained by his own mouth that the Law of Moses has been fulfilled and ended, and that the Sermon is his commandments which are to be kept.

    3 Nephi 15:1, 10

    1 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and said unto them: Behold, ye have heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father; therefore, whoso remembereth these sayings of mine and doeth them, him will I raise up at the last day.

    10 Behold, I have given unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments. And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me.

    And every person who knows the commandments of God and will not keep them cannot be saved.

    Mosiah 15:26-27, Earliest Text

    But behold and fear and tremble before God
    -for ye ought to tremble-
    for the Lord redeemeth none such
    that rebelleth against him and die in their sins
    -yea, even all those that have perished in their sins
    ever since the world began-
    that have wilfully rebelled against God,
    that have known the commandments of God and would not keep them.
    These are they that have no part in the first resurrection.
    Therefore ought ye not to tremble?
    For salvation cometh to none such,
    for the Lord hath redeemed none such.
    Yea, neither can the Lord redeem such,
    for he cannot deny himself;
    for he cannot deny justice when it hath its claim.

    Thus the biconditional has been established: if you keep the commandments of Jesus, you shall be saved; if you will not keep the commandments of Jesus, you cannot be saved, therefore you are saved if and only if you keep all the commandments of Jesus.

    This is the faith of Jesus Christ.

  10. Jared, from Keepapitchinin’s recent Saturday REmix from 1939:

    Before Repentance
    “Children,” said the Sunday school teacher, “what is the first thing we have to do before our sins can be forgiven?”
    Little Harry waved his hand. “Please, ma’am,” he said, “the first thing we must do is to sin!”

    From 3 Nephi 11:32-33
    And this is my doctrine…whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved…

    Sometimes we may put the emphasis in the wrong — at least in an inadequate — place.

  11. Jared Livesey says:

    JR,

    That which is both necessary and sufficient for salvation is literally the perfect thing to emphasize.

    But we may say more. Since the faith of Jesus Christ is simply, solely, and only the keeping of his commandments, and since one is saved if, and only if, one keeps all of Jesus’s commandments, then we see that 3 Nephi 11:32-33 shows us another lesson: one believes in Jesus Christ if and only if one keeps all his commandments.

    That this understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ is correct is shown by Mormon 9.

    Mormon 9:1-6

    1 And now, I speak also concerning those who do not believe in Christ.

    2 Behold, will ye believe in the day of your visitation—behold, when the Lord shall come, yea, even that great day when the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, yea, in that great day when ye shall be brought to stand before the Lamb of God—then will ye say that there is no God?

    3 Then will ye longer deny the Christ, or can ye behold the Lamb of God? Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

    4 Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.

    5 For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of God, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you.

    6 O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day.

    So we see that keeping Christ’s commandments is to believe in him, while breaking his commandments is to disbelieve in him. This is why Christ said to the Nephites at the beginning of the Sermon, giving forth a sign as he did so:

    3 Nephi 12:1
    [T]herefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am.

    For it is not enough to know that he is. We must believe in him, which means do what he says. Whether we believe in him or not is evidenced by the simple test of whether we keep his commandments, for example, by being baptized by one of his sent servants, by giving to every man that asks, by releasing all from their debts to us, by lending to all comers without asking for repayment, by not building up savings or retirement funds but distributing our immediate excess (stuff beyond this day’s needs) to the poor, and so on, as he taught in the Sermon.

    “Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments of the law until it be fulfilled, the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Christ wasn’t joking with us, or exaggerating, or deploying irony (ie, sarcasm). He addressed that at the beginning of the Sermon: “Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.”

    “Now, why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say to do?
    Any person who comes to me and hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will show you to what he may be compared:

    He is like a man who built a house, and dug deep, and laid the foundation on a rock.
    And when the flood arose, the waters beat forcefully upon that house, and could not shake it, for it was built upon a rock.

    But he that hears these sayings of mine, and does not do them, is like a man that built a house upon the earth without a foundation, and the flood beat upon it forcefully, and it fell instantly, and the destruction of that house was great.”

  12. Good points, Michael. Personally, I have no problem with Jesus using irony in teaching. Jared, you make some good points too. And they illustrate the futility of justification through the law. I’m sure most if not most of us reading this have retirement and savings accounts. And I know the Church has some huge savings accounts. Just illustrates the utter dependence upon repentance and grace.

  13. Jared Livesey says:

    Bro. B.,

    Repentance would include divesting oneself of one’s retirement and savings accounts and distributing the proceeds to the poor, as the Lord commanded. This commandment is plainly stated and actionably specific. If we do not keep the Lord’s commandments, we have not repented, and his grace is not sufficient for us.

    Salvation is to be made into exactly what Jesus is. The point of discipleship is to perform the training exercises assigned by our master that we may gain his understanding and do things just the way he would do them. The disciple does not know better than his master, but every disciple who is fully trained shall be just like his master. We cannot evade these things and be saved: we cannot be made into what Jesus is when we know, and will not do, what Jesus both does and commands of us.

    By our disobedience we demonstrate that, whatever we may say with our lips, in our hearts we do not want to be like Jesus. His grace, which is the ability to give a good gift – a good gift is one which is freely given, without judgement nor expectation of reciprocity – does not help us, for it is not a good gift to take a man and force upon him Jesus’s nature, which is charity, since the man does not want charity, as evidenced by his rebellion against the things Jesus has commanded him to do. That is why we cannot be saved in our sins, but may only be saved from our sins upon our sincere and complete repentance, wherein we act against our evil nature and do all the things Jesus commands because we believe his words, and trust completely in him even at the cost of our possessions, our families, and our lives.

    And if we know what Jesus has commanded, refuse to do it, and die in our sins, we cannot be saved; we have no home in the kingdom of Heaven, and are as salt which has lost its savor, which is cast out, being good for nothing.

    That’s why he said these things.

    Luke 14:25-35, KJV
    25 ¶ And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,

    26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

    27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

    28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

    29 Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

    30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

    31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

    32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

    33 So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

    34 ¶ Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

    35 It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    The God of truth, who cannot lie, said those things.

  14. Jared Livesey says:

    The idea that Jesus was being ironic – saying one thing with his words while using his tone to negate the literal meaning of what he was saying – undermines the absolute confidence we must have in him and his words in order to engage truly and fully in his discipleship.

    That is to say, because we must literally do what he said to do or else we cannot be saved, if we think he was kidding in what he said to do, we will lack confidence in the face of the immediate and obvious cost of actually doing what he literally said to and fail to do it and therefore will not be saved. The price will seem too high to finish the course of instruction we have said and shown we were engaging in by our baptism, sacrament, and endowments.

    For who would engage in literally doing what Jesus commanded, which will cost him his family, his status, his reputation, his property, his career, and his life, unless he had absolute confidence in Jesus (faith) and in Jesus’s promises (hope), that he may obtain charity – perfect love for all mankind, which never fails – and be saved?

  15. Being curious about Jared Livesey’s remarkable confidence in the KJV and in his interpretation of the BoM and “salvation,” and what I had taken as an apparent lack of interest in the idea of obedience to Christ growing out of love for Christ rather than out of fear of not being “saved” (probably not a fair take on his comments), I looked around a bit and found:

    A. this on ldsfreedomforum:
    “The disappearence of log (Jared Livesey.)
    2019 Jan 23, 6:50 pm
    Jared has taken down all his blogs and blog posts.
    This would appear to be an act of repentance, but what has he repented of?
    Does anyone know if he’s returned to the LDS church?”

    and
    B. this on mormoninterpreter:
    “Louis Midgley on January 14, 2018 at 9:07 pm said:
    This is from Jared Levesey’s blog:
    “My name is Jared Livesey, and I reside in Bakersfield, CA. I am an inactive member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (‘LDS Church’). I have been baptized again outside the auspices of the LDS Church because I believe Denver Snuffer has truthfully reported that Jesus Christ renewed the commandment to be baptized and so-called ‘rebaptism’ is no longer a service that the LDS Church provides for members.”
    One ought to read his remarks as an expression of his having become a follower of Denver Snuffer. Those who join Snuffer’s “church” are not merely “inactive” Latter-day Saints. Jared’s remarks are a kind of Snuffer style opposition to the community of Latter-day Saints.”

    I expect I do not understand the reasons for Jared’s lengthy comments here.

  16. Jared Livesey says:

    JR,

    The reason for my comments here is simply to communicate the contents of those comments. As the Lord has said: “[I]t becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor” (D&C 88:81).

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