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Stealth Christianity

Matthew 6:1-18

Lesson audio

It is at once famous and unknown. The Lord’s Prayer, with the possible exceptions of John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm, is the most recognized section of Scripture. Of those three Scriptures, this is the one that is prescriptive rather than descriptive, for it tells us where we are to aim in prayer, so that we might hit the target in the world outside.

"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. "So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who is 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 lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]' "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

(Mat 6:1-18 NASB)

The practice of stealth

Ostentation is a curious thing. It is very closely allied to a desire for virtue. For as those whose hearts are pure long for the power to make things right, they must make some sort of show to the world. People can be convinced with an ostentatious display; the temptation is to believe the press releases and think yourself grand.

This is an understanding which is not available to most of us. As Augustine pointed out, until you struggle with ostentation you do not know its real strength – or its subtlety. Many a man has given large amounts of money so that the building would have his name on the outside – and thought himself a benefactor in the process. Where is the boundary between benefactor and glory hog?

In almsgiving

It should be noted that Christ presumed that his disciples would give to the poor. The lesson is common in the Old Testament, but usually mentioned in passing in the New Testament. It is the opposing virtue to the sin of gluttony, a point that often surprises. Christ did not turn the stones to bread. Gluttony is often quite public (“I’m going to take you out to have the finest steak in Texas”); it says that I live in excess. Almsgiving should not have that public nature, but should be given in secret. What shall you expect from God if you give Him nothing?

In prayer

There is, of course, one sense in which prayer must be public – in worship. As worship and service should match, it therefore follows that you should pray in private as well. The problem is in praying so that people will think you are a pious Christian. But it is possible to take this to the extreme: “I am so pious that I never pray in public.”

The virtues of praying alone, in secret, are well known:

  • No interruptions!
  • A time to hear as well as a time to talk.
  • A time to reveal that which you can reveal to no other.

And, most important, your Lord rewards those who pray in secret.

We are commanded not to use vain repetition. I wonder if that includes those wonderful messages I keep getting which tell me to pray this prayer and pass it on to 500 of my closest friends, doing so in the next 5 minutes, as God is waiting to hear from me. Is that also “vain repetition?”

One of my favorite writers, Chrysostom, summed it up this way:

You do not then pray in order to teach God your wants, but to move Him, that you may become His friend by the importunity of your applications to Him, that you may be humbled, that you may be reminded of your sins.

It helps to know who He is and who we are.

In fasting

Until very recently the church recognized fasting as a form of sacrifice for God. She also recognized that the frauds would appear to fast as well. The phrase is “when you fast” not “if you fast.” One reason this was such a commonplace was it was recognized as depriving you of food – so that the poor might eat. What you might have eaten was to be given to the poor. The modern equivalent might be the price of a restaurant dinner given to a food bank.

Some time in the middle 19th century, the fashion turned against this. We have lost the sense of this as virtue. Perhaps the ancients knew something we don’t know.

Prayer: the things of God

The ideal prayer begins with the things of God. We shall see this first, and then the aspects of the prayer down at the human level.

Our Father

In those two words Christ defined the church and most of western civilization with it. It begins with the acknowledgment that He is God – and perhaps more important that we are not. It sets the stage for all else.

Western Civilization? Of course; it depends upon the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. He who denies either is a barbarian – and we now have plenty of barbarians. The Jews did not know God as father; Islam denies it too. For the Christian holds this as fundamental. Chrysostom again:

For what hurt does such kindred with those beneath us, when we are all alike kin to One above us? For who calls God Father, in that one title confesses at once the forgiveness of sins, the adoption, the heirship, the brotherhood, which he has with the Only-begotten, and the gift of the Spirit. For none can call God Father, but he who has obtained all these blessings. In a two-fold manner, therefore, he moves the feeling of them that pray, both by the dignity of Him who is prayed to, and the greatness of those benefits which we gain by prayer.

Hallowed be your name

There is a significant trinity in the Lord’s prayer: three ways in which we plead for His will; three ways in which we plead for our benefit. What does it mean?

  • It is the plea that His Name be held as sacred, not as an obscenity.
  • It is the plea that His Name be held as sacred within us. By this we glorify God.
  • It also means that much of what we do in the church is done in the Name. We pray in that Name, baptize in that Name, bury in that Name, and by that Name we will be drawn from the grave at the last.
Your Kingdom come

More literally, “the kingdom of you, let it come.” It will come, whether we will it or not. We may welcome it, as here, or oppose it – but it will come.

But do you not see what a high degree of faith and confidence this implies? The world sees no resurrection of the dead; the world thinks us hopeless halfwits. With the same evidence they have, we ask to see the resurrection of the dead and the final victory of righteousness. The faithful can see it; the cynic need not even look.

Your will be done

You have asked for the kingdom to come; now work to bring it about. Even if it seems (as often it does) that God’s will makes no visible sense.

I recently attended a funeral. One of the eulogists offered us this thought: if you are a Christian, you will not die until you have fulfilled your God-given purpose. Once you have, why would you want to stay?

Prayer: things of man

May we begin with what is not in here?

  • There is no sense of asking for long term security.
  • There is no sense of asking for victory or vengeance.

These are the things of this world. They remain in time; the Christian remains in eternity. The only intersection of time and eternity is “now.” This prayer seeks out the things of “now.”

Our daily bread

May I point out the word “our”? Daily bread is usually thought of as being earned, and so it is, commonly. The possessive pronoun changes that:

  • If we made the bread, and are stingy with it, we are eating someone else’s bread, for he commands us to share.
  • If we stole the bread, or deceived others to get it, we are eating someone else’s bread; it is not ours.

To say “our” implies that we have responsibility for others eating too.

Forgive us our debts

The tense implies the present; we forgive now, not tomorrow. Sometimes we have to forgive continuously, the offense is that great. So it is required; indeed we are told that we will not be forgiven unless we forgive.

For most of us, this means that we must cast aside the rubber yardstick. Your own standards of judgment will be applied to you. If your standard finds something offensive, then you will be measured by that. When you think that through, things change. I find myself much more prone to forgiveness than when I was younger. My standard now is “Forgive? No problem!” That’s my standard; but did I mention to you that there are no perfect Christians?

Lead us not into temptation

Either individually or as a group, this part of the prayer makes it clear that we are not strong enough to resist temptation. To pray for this is to admit weakness – either by yourself, in your group, or both. It says, we are weak.

But therefore it also says that He is strong; it is a recognition of His power. It is also a recognition that He will indeed keep you out of trouble – if you will but ask. If you should get into such trouble, appeal to Him for deliverance.

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

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