Jesus On the Barriers of Reputation and Wealth
Part 9 in series Hearing Jesus Again
Wildwind Community Church
July 12, 2008
We enter a new phase in our Sermon on the Mount series today. So far we have looked at the answers to two huge questions that we all deal with in life. The first is the question, “Who is well off.” The second is “Who is a good person?” Well, the person who is well off is the person who roots themselves in a God-shaped, God-saturated view of the world and lives in constant communion with God. Who is a good person? The genuinely good person is the person who, from the deepest part of their being, is committed to promoting the good of every person they deal with – this includes the good of God, and the good of themselves. People who have placed their confidence in Jesus and are cultivating good hearts become, as I said last week, part of God’s divine conspiracy to undermine the structures of evil that exist everywhere in our world. That’s the work God is up to even now. In our short-sightedness we often think we’re going to help God move things along by taking up weapons or dropping bombs, but that’s not how God works. God didn’t work that way in the middle ages when the church took up arms against the Muslims, and God doesn’t work that way today. God works by first changing one human heart and then enlisting that person to live the same way in the world that Jesus lived so the next heart is changed. And the next, and the next, and the next. Living the way Jesus lived: My friends, hearing that ought to make you swallow hard. It ought to give you chills. It ought to cause you to re-evaluate your life and your priorities. And your politics. To think hard about whether your views and your life are built solidly on the example of Jesus or simply on the platform of this party or that. If Jesus made the money you make, how would he spend it? If Jesus lived in the house you lived in, how many TV’s would he have in it, and how much would he pay every month for television? Would Jesus have HBO or Cinemax or a DVR? If Jesus had to drive as far to work as you do, what kind of a car would he drive? If Jesus had kids to raise, how would he raise them? What would Jesus watch on YouTube? What jokes would Jesus think were funny and what would break his heart? When his heart was broken by a joke someone else told, how would he express that? If Jesus was married to your spouse, how would Jesus treat them? If Jesus went to the grocery store, what do you think he’d buy and what would he pass on? How many iPods would Jesus have. One? Two? None? If a military recruiter called your house and asked for Jesus and tried to recruit Jesus into the army, what do you think Jesus would say? Global warming or not, how would Jesus treat the earth he made? If Jesus had your mouth and your lips, what words would come out of them? If he had your mind, what thoughts would he let hang around in there?
Tough questions, aren’t they? Sobering questions. If they are not sobering, we are not taking seriously enough the call Jesus has placed on our lives to be part of his divine conspiracy to undermine the structures of evil in this world by living our lives the way he would live our lives if he were us! And my friends, I believe we can each examine these questions and come up with answers that are not always gonna be the same. I don’t think there’s any one correct answer to most of these, but don’t you think we ought to be serious about asking the questions and then living out whatever we think the answer is? Isn’t that what would please the heart of God? Non-Christians here tonight, that’s what God calls us to. A mission to undermine evil in this world, not through force but through love, one heart at a time. Jesus didn’t sell religion. He didn’t push a political agenda. He asked people to repent of their sin, embrace a God-soaked, God-centered perspective on life, and join up in his divine conspiracy of love and goodness that goes beyond behavior all the way down to the heart.
I think I have adequately summarized the underlying point of the last few weeks, and it’s time to move on. After telling us who is well off and who is the truly good person, Jesus turned his attention to two barriers that will stand in the way of our developing the kind of heart God wants us to have. These are things that will stand between us and God that will require intentional effort to remove – effort that will probably be ongoing throughout our lives. We’re talking here about the barriers of reputation and wealth.
Anybody here want people to think well of them? Anybody here enjoy being respected and find that you have an aversion to being disrespected? Our natural desire to be respected and respectable is one of the things that places us in the greatest spiritual danger.
This passage is long, but I think we need to look at it tonight. Here’s what Jesus said. Now remember, he’s talking about reputation – getting others to think well of you.
Matthew 6:1-18 (NIV)
1 "Be careful not to do your ’acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 "This, then, is how you should pray: "’Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16 "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Matthew 6:19-24 (NRSV)
19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;
20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light;
23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Jesus addresses five things here. Giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, and money. He starts out with the general, “Don’t do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them.” This is the basic principle Jesus wants us to understand, and then he goes on to give examples of how to do good without drawing excessive attention to yourself. The main technique Jesus teaches is secrecy. For what Jesus was trying to communicate, a better word, probably, would be discretion. Discretion.
The kingdom heart is a heart that does good because it is good. The kingdom heart delights in doing good things because it is a good heart and that is the only reward it needs. The kingdom heart does not try to impress other people with stories of good deeds, sacrifices made for the kingdom, etc. I’m convinced that if more people understood this, we would have a lot more humility in this world. See, being pious (spiritual) when everyone can see it brings its own reward. When you are publicly pious, people will say, “Wow, look how holy and spiritual that person is.” This is one of the greatest dangers of being a spiritual leader. We who are spiritual leaders, whether we lead ten or a hundred or a thousand or tens of thousands, are subjected to the very real risks that accompany public leadership. We are chosen (and often paid) to pray, but when we pray there will be those who say, “Listen to that heartfelt and beautiful prayer,” and will esteem us in ways we do not deserve. In other words, they will automatically look to us and our goodness instead of to God. If I preach a fantastic, barn-burner of a sermon, there’s as much chance that people will be drawn to me as a speaker as that they will be drawn to God as the one who has given me whatever gifts I have and is the real author of the words that I preach. See this? Jesus knows that doing good things in front of other people is very dangerous. No doubt sometimes we have to because that is sometimes the context of our work, but it is still dangerous and we should make every attempt to keep a level head.
Think of the things Jesus said the religious leaders were doing. When they gave money, they would literally blow horns and announce how much they were giving. When they prayed they would literally stand out on the street corners and pray these long, complicated, heavily theological prayers, with the thought in the back of their minds, “I hope this one really shows people how much I know about God,” and they’d go on and on. When they fasted, they would make these faces to show everyone how starved they were. People might ask what’s wrong and they could say, “I’m fasting right now. This is the hardest one I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it this time, but I guess this is what it means to be holy.”
All of this concerns reputation. It’s one thing to use a promotion at work as a way of drawing attention to ourselves. It’s one thing to use the size of our paycheck. It’s one thing to make sure everyone sees our trophy wife, or how skilled our husband is with tools and how he keeps making our home nicer and nicer. Those are some of the petty and ridiculous ways we get attention and prop ourselves up in front of others. But what Jesus addressed is the worst of all – using those exercises and activities that are designed to humble us and draw us closer to the heart of God as a way of getting others to respect and esteem us more.
Humility nearly always comes from quietness. Humility is created by quietness, and humility causes quietness. A kingdom heart is humble heart, so if a person is seeking to be humble, they must follow the way of quietness, which leads to humility. As humility increases, a person will feel less and less of a need to speak out about the good things they do because they will increasingly come to came only about God’s opinion. Jesus promises that when we do things in secret God will reward us, but even this is not the reason we do good things. Perhaps at first that’s the reason, but after a while we come to where we are developing the heart of God and the things that delights God’s heart also delight ours – and so doing good becomes its own reward. We do not need the recognition and adulation of men and women. We will take joy in our quiet acts of goodness. Doing good things to be seen by others who will then acknowledge us as being good people is devastating to our souls. Why will God not reward such things? Because God is a heart-based God. God responds to what is in our hearts. If we desire to please God and do something for that reason and remain quiet about it, God will be pleased. If we desire the praise of men and women more, then we will get what we sought in our hearts – the praise and esteem of men and women. If we left God out of the loop when we did it, God will naturally be out of the loop afterwards as well. God is only in on something to the extent we bring him in on it.
This points out what is never said in the text but I believe is a huge underlying subtext. We will never be able to use God in the accomplishment of our own agendas. God will not get on board as we try to promote and advance ourselves. God will not be a part of making us look good to a watching world. God will not come to our aid as we try to prove we were right. Take it further. Politically, God is not on the side of those who take up weapons to kill others in the name of peace. Take that statement as un-American if you will, but God does not love Americans (and America) any more than he loves Iraqis. Or any more than he loves Iranians, for that matter. We frequently find ourselves wanting to hurry God along so that we can accomplish his will for him faster. God will be God and will do things on his timetable and in his own way. Or we want to advance both ourselves and God at the same time. “How handy if I can do things for God and yet still get other people to see how groovy I am!” We want to have God’s way AND our way, and that’s because even God’s way is really often about securing own own future – getting God to bless us with peace, prosperity, or whatever else we want. The way Jesus teaches will advance God’s purposes completely.
Jesus says do good things and don’t milk them. We must do everything in our power to do the right things for the right reasons. We must put intentional safeguards in place to guard us against the allure of vanity and selfishness. For example, there’s a part of me that’s into titles. Many of you know that I am pretty vocal about not wanting people to call me pastor or reverend. And I’ve heard people say quite often, “You’re so humble, to not want people to use those titles.” But actually it’s the other way around. I do not ask people not to use those terms because I am humble, I ask people not to use those terms because I want to BECOME humble, and I believe that hearing those terms attached to my name all the time would make that very difficult for me. The esteem and respect those words communicate are nice, but for me that is very dangerous. I know I could only be addressed by those titles for so long before I started to believe my own press. That’s pretty much the same reason I don’t wear suits. We live in a society that says, “People will respect you if you dress to impress.” Dress to impress. Hmm. I don’t think I could pursue that goal and please Jesus at the same time. That’s just me, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with titles or with dressing up – just that those are liabilities for me personally. So those are some things I do to deliberately put down the never-ending need for more admiration, more respect, more praise that we all have. I’ve found I have to be intentional about it. If I can get others to treat me like I’m just a regular guy, that will remind me of the most important truth in my life – that whatever impact God may allow me to have in this world, I’m just a regular guy. At the end of every day I think there’s nothing more important than knowing that whether we just broke ten million records sold, or just finished designing the Brooklyn Bridge, or removed a tumor from somebody, or helped save a marriage, or kept the project at work from tanking, we’re all just regular folks. Which means we are sinners in the hands of a gracious and compassionate God and we are in need of mercy. We all must put safeguards into our lives – things to guard us against our insatiable need for more praise, more admiration, more respect.
That’s what’s great about family. Bono’s real name is Paul. Do you think his wife Allison calls him Bono? I’d say that’s pretty unlikely, wouldn’t you say, ladies? You know I think it’s a very healthy thing for Bono, perhaps the greatest gift in his life, that after hanging around all day with the Pope and Nelson Mandela and President Clinton, and trying to rid the world of AIDS, he goes home and Allison probably says, “Welcome home Paul. I guess Mr. Bigshot just didn’t think it was important to be around for family movie night last night. Too busy being Bono.” You know she’s not starstruck with Bono the rock star and humanitarian – she just wants him to be a good husband and father. She wants him to do well at being a regular guy. Because at the end of every day, after every show, every press conference, this is all he is – a regular guy. But even for the majority of us who aren’t famous, it’s easy to let our reputation become our main concern. In order to fight this, we have to put intentional mechanisms into our lives to counter that tendency. Jesus suggests that the main one is secrecy.
Now for wealth, covered in the last couple sections. Put simply, you will be emotionally attached to whatever you spend your money on. Period. Not even a matter of opinion, dear friends. And the things you are emotionally attached to will have the greatest ability to control you and affect your state of well-being. That’s why the less we own the better. I say that in a Grand Blanc church to people who have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of stuff. But we all should probably get rid of quite a bit of our stuff. We accumulate stuff, then we lock our doors to protect our stuff, then we pay for insurance so that if our stuff gets stoken we can get our stuff back. We agonize over it when it breaks, when we have to spend money on stuff to maintain it, and over not having enough money to afford the stuff we want.
I’m going to make this simple. You and I have too dog-gone much stuff and it usually gets in the way of our being able to love and serve Jesus. How many TV’s and iPods WOULD Jesus have? Chances are good we have too much stuff. And if our hearts are where our treasure is, our hearts are with our stuff. We can’t pray that God will give us a right attitude toward our stuff. We must start getting rid of stuff (investing less in stuff) and start investing more in God. That will create in us the God-shaped, God-centered hearts that will please him. I need a lot of prayer on this. So do most of us here tonight. Let’s pray.