All: Pulling Strings (2017-1105)
5 Nov 2017, Christ Mountain Top All Saints
Call to Worship, Setting the Table
Children, Luke 17.11-19
Message, Matthew 6.1-18
The Scripture we selected today is focused on the practice of our spirituality in its most basic form – in generosity and in prayer. The passage continues with a focus on the deceitfulness of wealth and the trap of anxiety. Most of the time when we think about money, we think about it as solely a worldly thing, as having nothing to do with our spirituality. But Jesus teaches on money, teaches on prayer, and then goes back to wealth and generosity.
Here at Christ Church, in our membership vows, we ask each person, “Do you commit yourself to consistent growth in a spirituality characterized as giving, faithful, and real?” Wealth is a spiritual thing. But most of the time, we persist in putting wealth in a box with “real life”, with career, paying the bills (or not) – and living as if everything in this box has nothing to do with prayerfulness or spirituality.
Jesus talked about work, business, and money more than he talked about heaven. Jesus is concerned that all of our lives become fully devoted to God. We hear this, but mostly ignore it, because it seems so impractical.
So, let’s take this passage for starters. And, let’s look at one of the themes that Jesus teaches about wealth. He teaches us – and it should be obvious – that the exchange of wealth often comes with strings attached. Did anyone ever offer you a gift, but it really wasn’t free? They wanted something from you, something in exchange.
The old Latin expression quid pro quo describes this kind of exchange, meaning literally, “this for that”. I give you this. You give me that. A Non Sequitur comic (July 24, 2004, by Wiley Miller) showed a giant squid and a chef sitting at a booth in a seafood restaurant. The squid says, “So it’s a deal then .... I’ll provide the ink for your menus and you’ll take calamari off it.” The title: “Squid pro quo”.
I heard a friend comment that politicians should be forced to wear their endorsements just like NASCAR drivers. Why? Because we all assume that the obscene amounts of money in politics comes with certain strings attached.
Proverbs 22:7 – “The borrower is the slave of the lender.” Talk about a string – the borrower responds like a puppet on a string, the borrower feels like a person at the end of his rope. Ever been there?
Jesus teaches us that the exchange of wealth often comes with strings attached.
Like the teaching on prayer, which begins with how not to pray, Jesus teaches on giving by teaching how not to give. Don’t give like hypocrites, don’t give to get the praise of people. Don’t turn your prayers into performance art. If that’s all you want, if that’s the string you want to pull, you’ve got it ... but you’ve got nothing before God. That is not godly giving or holy prayer. Godly giving is not about me. Holy prayer is not about increasing my prestige. They are about . . . binding ourselves to God. Holy prayer doesn’t attach a string to the gift. Godly giving attaches a string to our souls and ties us to God. The text continues, beyond today’s focus:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).
Some notes from the Greek text:
In verse 1, when Jesus warns us against righteousness done to be noticed by other people, the root for “noticed” is the word theathenai, the root for our English term “theater”. And the Greek word for “hypocrite” is a word for a performer, an actor. (See Bruner, 283, and Thayer Lexicon in BW6.0.) Our prayer is not to be theatrical. Our fasting is not to be dramatic. Our giving is not to be performance. It is all for God, all about God.
Theatrical spirituality comes with strings attached. It is designed to get us noticed, to give us prestige points. But, the text tells us, “they have received their reward”, or, more literally, that “they have been paid in full”. It is a business term (Bruner, 284, and Thayer). And it means that there is no further payment coming. Contractor paid. Performing for the crowds doesn’t get God’s attention.
But it goes even further. It is not just about performing for crowds. It is also about interior performances. Frederick Bruner writes, “Not only should there be no external trumpets, but there should not even be any internal music” (285). Jesus said it this way, “When you do charity, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Bruner’s translation of 6:3, p 284).
The language of performance is such a powerful thing in our lives. Get an “A” and get $5. Score a goal and get a Slushee. Put on a good interview and get the job. Buy a diamond and get a kiss, because “every kiss begins with ...” This turns every encounter in our lives into a transaction, a transaction that can be quantified, measured. Talk about performance anxiety, stage fright.
The question becomes not whether wealth comes with strings attached, but what strings shall we choose? Do we choose the God of “Mammon”, and seek to build up treasures here and now? Do we choose the God of the approval of others, of prestige or influence? These are demanding gods, gods that require our performance and offer very little in return, with no guarantees. Or do we choose the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ kingdom, a kingdom of grace and love?
Jesus wants us to cut the strings, the purse strings and prayer strings, that bind us to Mammon or Influence or Approval. He reminds us that those things fail – moths (nature at work), rust (time at work), thieves (people at work) (Bruner, 321).
Jesus wants us to tie ourselves to God, to “the Father, who sees in secret and will reward” by putting our treasure in the kingdom of heaven and anchoring our heart there. Sometimes we – caught up as we are in the economic exchange, in the worldly power of wealth – interpret this reward from God in pure economic terms. But this is no economic transaction. Jesus teaches us to call upon God as Father, Jesus puts us in the family. (See Brunner, 285.)
One of our kids here at Christ Church has made this connection. Mom and dad gave him a dollar to give. He didn’t want to give it. His holding back meant that he was missing out. He learned, instead, to give with joy. So, when we give, he moves to an aisle seat to be in prime position to add his gifts to the others, even asking others to move over so that he can cut the strings and bind himself to God.
That’s “leading with your treasure”, not simply with your heart. Jesus says, later in this passage, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” It is a powerful reminder of the spirituality of stuff, the intimate connection between generosity and a rich prayer life.
There’s no performance anxiety in that spiritual practice. Instead, there is a link, deep and powerful, to a loving Father God. That’s the gift of giving, that’s why holy generosity does for a soul.
The amazing thing in all of this is that God’s treasure is with you and me here and now. We are worth so much to God, we are worth the divine life itself, we are worth the cross. And if God’s heart is where God’s treasure is, that means that God’s heart is with us. In so many ways, we are not worthy. But from God’s perspective, it’s totally worth it. That’s why we celebrate this holy meal today. (Holy Communion).
Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004 (1987), Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1:The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Non Sequitur comic. July 24, 2004. Wiley Miller.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon in Hermeneutika’s BibleWorks 6.0