Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action


Salt, Light, and the Law: Reflections on our Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

Last night at our Lenten Bible Study, we focused on Mt. 5:13-32. I had hoped to get all the way through chapter 5 but that was not to be. We began by exploring the saying about salt. The scientists among us pointed out that salt can be adulterated but it can’t not be salt. Then we sought to understand the saying about salt via the saying about light. Both seem to be sayings directed at the disciples (Jesus first uses “you” in v. 11: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you”). This seems to suggest that the disciples by definition change the world, that their very presence and manner of life witness to the Reign of God.

Someone offered the parables as comparable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of the seeds…” I find this helpful because Jesus is holding up the disciples as members of the new community he’s calling into existence, a new community that is intended to usher in and witness the Reign of God.

We struggled with Jesus’ language in these verses. What should we understand as metaphorical; what should we take literally? That’s especially true when dealing with passages like vss 29-30: If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off. But if we are meant to understand this metaphorically, what about other things Jesus says, like love of enemy and turning the other cheek? Might Jesus be talking about our priorities here, what we ought to give up in order to follow him?

Next week, we’ll try to make it through chapter 5 and get into chapter 6.