Summary: We cannot go far in the Kingdom of God until we get the lust for status under control. This is true in the material realm, as we shall see in a message planned for next week, and it is true in the religious realm as well, as we shall see this week.
Status or Substance?
Note: here is my bulletin insert I wrote up along with the sermon. Sermon follows.
Giving, Prayer, and Fasting
(notes for Matt. 6:1-15)
Since modern Judaism no longer has the Temple (in the Biblical sense) many Rabbis teach that charity, prayer, and fasting atone for sin in the absence of animal sacrifice. At the time of Christ, matters were understood differently: sacrifices were being offered and Jews firmly embraced the concept that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin." Still, these three practices were held in high esteem and dubbed, in Hebrew, "righteousness."
Dr. Ron Moseley writes, "Ancient Jews believed that the three virtues of prayer, charity, and repentance were the evidences of a heart which had truly turned from sin." Regarding charity or "sounding the trumpets," Moseley comments:
...In the women’s court of the Temple, during the first century, there were thirteen collection boxes for alms. They were wide at the bottom and narrow at the top and resembled trumpets. These boxes made a very recognizable sound as the coins were dropped into them. Often those Pharisees who wished to boast would drop a large number of coins in at once. This was called "sounding the trumpet." It was this practice of letting everyone know how much they were giving that Jesus opposed.
Regarding the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ model was not very different from other Jewish prayers. It was concise, began with reverence for God, and was balanced between worship, expression of submission to God, requests about advancing His Kingdom, requests for personal needs, and relational concerns. First century Jews often prayed memorized prayers in addition to spontaneous ones. For example, in Acts 1:14 while the disciples were waiting for Pentecost, it literally says in the Greek that they were giving themselves to THE prayers (the article is used), which probably refers to a combination of recited Jewish prayers, Psalms, and spontaneous petitions. In the modern evangelical world, it seems prayer has degenerated into mere lists of personal requests.
Ann Punton writes, "Of the numerous blessings known today, at least a hundred were used in Jesus day.... When you see a rainbow, you praise God for the sign of His covenant. If you experience a natural phenomenon or freak of nature, you proclaim God’s wonders. After a safe journey or deliverance from danger, you thank God for His mercies. For every occasion there is an appropriate response. Was it with this background in mind, though not necessarily in this manner, that Paul ordered Christians to ’Pray without ceasing!’?"
Fasting means to abstain from (usually) food for a certain period as a way to intensify prayer or, more often, to express brokenness and repentance. Jews were required to fast annually on the Day of Atonement. We also read of fasting during times of disaster and misery. Fasting is also associated with humbling ourselves before God. Although the New Testament only mentions fasting in a few places, Scripture does endorse fasting as a Christian discipline as long as it does not degrade into the sorts of abuse mentioned in Colossians 2:20-23. Like prayer and giving, fasting needs to be embraced with the heart, not mere ritual, if it is to be pleasing to God. Fasting should be a quiet and personal matter.