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Sunday, April 17, 2011

True Disciples and Possessions — Matthew 6:19-34

Concerning Treasures, 6:19-21
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
 Jesus' teaching his disciples the importance of secret personal piety and the rewards God will give them, leads to this next section about "treasures" on earth and in heaven. Despite our association of the word "treasure" with hoards of diamonds or jewels or gold, the Greek word simply refers to anything valuable that was kept secure. The fact that in Matthew the word has a broad reference to possessions can be seen from Mt 19:21, where instead of earthly treasures versus heavenly ones, Jesus speaks of earthly "possessions" and heavenly "treasure."
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV) 
 Jesus may have deliberately used two different words in 19:21 in order to contrast the relatively worthless possessions we have on earth—even if we might be millionaires—with the incomparable worth of what awaits us in God's presence.

The words "sell your possessions" do not imply that we should divest ourselves of everything we have, for scripture elsewhere commands us to be wise in the management of our possessions, so that we can support those in need, including our own families. Perhaps the best way to view these words is as equivalent to "go, invest your possessions in the service of others, not yourself!"

Jesus' use here in chapter 6 of the term "treasure(s)" instead of "possession(s)" indicates something that we ourselves are mistakenly inclined to set a very high value upon. The things we should value highly are spiritual things, not material ones. Jesus teaches us here that even in retaining possessions only in order to use them properly in the service of Christ, we should not regard them as "treasures", but merely "possessions"—i.e., tools in the service of Christ. When they become "treasures," they become illegitimate.

It is not money itself, not even the possession of it, but the love of it that is "a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim 6:10).
If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:8-10 NRSV) 

Note that in saying "a root" (not "the root") Jesus reminds us that there are other roots besides money for all kinds of evil.

Healthy and Unhealthy Eyes, 6:22-23 
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" 
 If one were to read verse 24 right after verse 21, there would be a seamless connection: don't set your heart on treasures leads immediately to the warning about not trying to serve God and money at the same time. Why then did Jesus insert the teaching about the good and bad eye at this point?

The mention of the "heart" leads to a saying about one's "eye" meaning what one wants most in life. A person whose "eye" is on the wrong things—whether it be wealth or prestige or the praise of other believers for one's humility or godliness—has a mind that is darkened, and cannot see properly.

This saying employs parts of the body symbolically. The eye refers to the desires and ambitions which influence our decisions, while the rest of the body refers to our actions flowing from those decisions. When our desires are set on pleasing Christ instead of pleasing ourselves, then every aspect of our lives will be filled with the light of his presence. When we put our own gratification at the top of our priority list, it likewise affects every aspect of our lives.

Some translations like the NIV render the second phrase in v 22 as "if your eyes are good" —similarly ESV and NRSV "if your eye is healthy." On one level this satisfies the metaphor, since good eyesight produces a well-lit field of vision and enables good decisions, whereas bad eyesight leaves a person with no possibility of avoiding missteps.

But this rendering also obscures the fact—which was clear in the KJV—that the Greek adjective means basically "single," as opposed to "double." The immediately following context warns against a dual loyalty: God and possessions. What is meant is not "double vision" in the sense of astigmatism, but trying to focus on more than one object at the same time.

A "single" vision is fixed on God alone, not on God and our own possessions. And when God alone influences our decisions, our whole lives are filled with the light of his guidance and his presence.

Serving Two Masters, 6:24 
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." 
 Having finished the metaphor of the good and bad eye, Jesus caps his teaching on earthly possessions versus heavenly treasure with this trenchant statement about serving two gods.

This ultimatum from Jesus, excluding the possibility of being guided by God and our own becoming wealthy reminds us of the famous ultimatum issued by Elijah to the Israelites on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:16-45).

Even in OT times the Canaanite god Baal was more than just some pagan god. More than any other god in the pantheons of the ancient Near East, Baal was thought to be the source of all wealth and prosperity. He sent the rains that made the crops grow. He caused the cattle in your herds and the sheep in your folds to reproduce and thrive. Baal was the ancient stock portfolio, the hedge fund, the IRA. Everyone wanted a good relationship with Baal. And in Elijah's day even outwardly pious Israelites didn't mind making a sacrifice once in a while to Baal in addition to Yahweh, just to sweeten the pot of everyday life. This was why God sent Elijah to Mt. Carmel to confront King Ahab and all the Israelites gathered there for a big sacrifice to Baal. Through Elijah God warned his people that it was impossible to do what they were trying to do. Elijah's words to the people that day were more than a demand for them to make a choice of several gods from among a larger selection. Instead, they assumed that there could be only one true God. It was up to the Israelites to decide which that one God was. If Yahweh is God, then serve him; if Baal, then serve him. You cannot serve both Yahweh and Baal. Your "eye" must be "single"!

Jesus merely repeated Elijah's words, but changed the name Baal to Mammon. Modern translations have changed the KJV's "mammon" to "money." In one way this is good, as most people today don't know who or what Mammon is, although if they weren't lazy, they could look it up in the dictionary or at least "google it"! But it is bad in that most readers who read "you cannot serve both God and money" assume that Matthew used here a Greek word meaning "money" or "possessions." Instead, Matthew avoided any Greek word, and simply used the Aramaic word that Jesus had spoken, mamôn, which does mean "possessions." Now Matthew translated Jesus' other words into the Greek understandable by his readers, most of whom didn't understand Aramaic or Hebrew. Why then didn't he also translate Jesus' word mamôn into Greek for his Greek readers, as he had done with the words for possessions and treasure that he has just used? I think he deliberately retained this particular un-Greek word—which therefore sounds like a proper name—in order to bring out Jesus' thought that when possessions are served, they become a god, namely "Mammon."  Matthew used Jesus' word for "possessions" or "money" as a modern equivalent of Elijah's god Baal.

Jesus warned his disciples that they could not "serve" both God and possessions. The verb "serve" implies the subordinate status of a slave or a worshiper. When we pursue position, status, or the approval of others, we are not the masters of what pursue, but we are controlled by it. This is true, whether the thing pursued is material (such as wealth), or immaterial (prestige, status). It controls us just as surely as if it were a literal person who owns us as slaves. Believers are described in the New Testament as "slaves" of Christ. This is not a negative thing, for to be enslaved to God is to be free of the more demeaning slavery to sin and selfishness (Romans 6:18-22).
Jesus said to those Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:31-36 NRSV).
If we try to let both serving God and becoming wealthy guide our decisions, we will often find that these two goals are in conflict, so that we cannot pursue both. Inevitably, then one of the two will be demoted to a secondary status. To the true disciple of Jesus there can only be one dominant guiding influence: the will of God expressed in the scriptures and in the person of Jesus. It is possible that following that sole goal might bring a person wealth, but most likely it will not. Jesus is not asking us to aspire to being poor, but rather to aspire to being godly, and let him decide our levels of income or success. Financial success is not a safe barometer of our spiritual health.

Not Worrying about our Physical Needs, 6:25-34 
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:25-34) 
In verse 25 the Greek text reads literally "stop worrying," implying that Jesus saw that some of his disciples were already worrying. In response to his call to discipleship, some of them had actually left their work to follow him (Mt 4:18-22). Since they were not wealthy entrepreneurs with servants to carry on their affairs, they had reason to worry, not only about themselves, but also their wives or children back home. Yet Jesus wanted them not to worry. Preoccupation with such matters distracts them from their real mission as disciples.

Jesus' first reason why we should not let food and clothing preoccupy us (in v 25) is that there are things far more important to our well-being than food and clothing. This doesn't mean that we don't need food or clothing: after all, prayer for our daily bread formed one of the requests in the prayer than Jesus had given them (Mt 6:11). And what we pray for, we must be willing to work for—but not worry about.

Of course, the issue most important for our lives is our relationship to God. If we put this first, as these men had done in leaving all to follow Jesus, then the other needs will be met one way or another. Indeed, this is what Jesus goes on to say in verse 33: "seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Just because God "gives" us what we need, doesn't mean that it reaches us without some effort on our part.

A good illustration of this principle in Jesus' own immediate circle of followers is the story of his visit to the home of the sisters Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Mary sat with him and listened intently to his teachings, while Martha fretted in the kitchen, wondering why Mary didn't help her prepare the food. When Martha finally interrupted them and asked Jesus to order Mary to come to the kitchen and help her, he replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—in fact, really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (verses 41-42). Jesus was not denying the need to share the work, but he would not allow a sincere disciple to be rebuked for not putting work ahead of learning. This is a good thing to remember in this year of our church's core emphasis on learning.

Jesus used two illustrations from nature to assure his disciples that God takes care of his own: the birds and the flowers. It is true that birds do not sow, reap or store away food in barns, but if you've ever sat and watched birds in springtime, you know that they are ceaselessly active in building nests and in procuring food for themselves and their newborns.

So even the birds, whom God takes care of, have to work hard for what he provides them. But—so far as we know—birds have no capacity for worrying. Only we humans have that capacity—or perhaps temptation. Our Lord's point is that we can go about normal activities that usually lead to enough food or clothing to sustain life without being preoccupied with how much or what quality we acquire. Honest work and contentment with modest results characterize the path that the Savior recommends. Many OT proverbs recommend the industrious work habits of animals that store up food for the coming winter (Prov 6:6-11). There too, admittedly, one could argue that it is done instinctively rather than because of actual thinking ahead and planning of future needs—i.e., that they are "programmed" to do these things. But in the OT context it is recommended because with us humans it encourages unworried planning. The balance that Jesus recommends is sensible foresight but no worry about future needs, or worse yet with the desire to have more than anyone else.

The wording of verse 31 is perhaps intended by Jesus (or Matthew) to remind readers of Lev 25:20-21, where a legitimate question arose in the minds of ancient Israelites instructed to forgo sowing crops in the sabbatical year: "What then will we eat in the seventh year?" While this is a legitimate question, and shows commendable foresight, God's answer points them to the issue of obedience and faith. For an Israelite to forgo sowing and reaping in an ordinary year, when God didn't command it, would have been presumptuous. But since God commanded that they not sow in the sabbatical year, Israelites could count on God giving them a bigger harvest in year six, sufficient to carry them over. In Deut 29:5 (and recalled in Neh 9:21) God reminded the Israelites that during the forty years in which they followed God and his ark in the wilderness, he sustained them, so that they didn't lack nourishment, and their clothes didn't wear out. This is a good illustration, because that act of obedience put the Israelites in a position where they couldn't sow or reap. Following God and obeying his will excluded the normal means of support.

Verse 32 asks us to think of the fact that our heavenly Father knows our needs as a way to counteract needless anxiety, but not in order to foster laziness.

With that in mind, it is clear that seeking first God's kingdom and his righteousness doesn't exclude daily work to make a living. Rather we conduct our working lives as part of our mission to show forth God's kingdom and righteousness. We show it through working faithfully and honestly, looking after the needs of others, including the rights of our employers. Verbal witness in the workplace always grows out of the context of faithful and honest labor for our employers. Anything less is a mockery of God.

Faithful disciples of Jesus do not always please their employers, because some employers are at times unreasonable. Therefore we shouldn't feel that any time there is dissatisfaction with some aspect of our service we have failed God. But such occasions are times in which we need to ask ourselves if there was some way in which we could have satisfied the legitimate goals of the employer.

The promise that "all these things" will be added to you doesn't mean everything you desire. It means "all these kinds of things," that is, food, clothing, shelter—and each according to your genuine need. And we should not seek the interests of God's kingdom so that he will meet our perceived needs. If we do that, we are likely to be disappointed, mistaking perceived needs with real ones.

Jesus' final words on this subject (v 34) almost sound like bitter sarcasm, but they were not so intended. It is realistic to anticipate that each day will bring fresh and unexpected challenges to our faith and our demeanor. Life without challenges is not real life, as long as sin and death are in the world. But we can meet those challenges and triumph in them through our Savior's presence and aid. This is why believers can rise every morning in cheerful anticipation. But since we often don't know what those challenges are,it makes no sense to worry about them in advance.

Here is a classic hymn, whose words I find lift my soul in anticipation of a new day:
When morning gilds the skies, my heart—awaking—cries: "May Jesus Christ be praised!"

Alike at work and prayer to Jesus I repair: "May Jesus Christ be praised!"

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Three Pillars of Personal Piety — Mat 6:1-18

Although obviously giving to the needy and intercessory prayer paired with fasting can be seen as service to others, most interpreters agree that in verses 1-18 Matthew has combined three practices in the traditional behavior of Jews in his day under what could be called "personal piety." They are almsgiving, prayer and fasting. And according to how Jesus commanded that they be done, each of these is private and confidential, a matter solely between the individual and God.

Almsgiving, 6:1-4
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4 NRSV)
Giving food or money to the poor has a long history. And within the Judaism, Christianity and Islam the term for "alms" is often the same word that means "righteousness." In fact, in several of the oldest Greek manuscripts of Matthew the word "alms" (eleēmosunē) occurs in this passage instead of the word "righteousness" (dikaiosunē). This opening verse is therefore not referring to three different forms of "righteousness": almsgiving, prayer and fasting, but only to almsgiving.

In the following passages from the ancient Jewish writing Tobit which was known in Jesus' time the Greek expression Matthew uses ("practice your righteousness") has to be translated "give (as) alms":
Tobit 4:7 give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. 8 If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. …  4:16 Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms.
Tobit 12:8 Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold.
But notice that Tobit ranks giving to the needy above prayer and fasting, which are Jesus' next examples in this passage, and that he advocates giving proportionately to your means, just as the NT does. Furthermore, the reward from God is mentioned in the form of his face being turned toward you for giving and away from you for refusing one in need. Rather significantly, what is not mentioned in the Tobit passage is the need for secrecy.

Not all of Jesus' teachings were to counter earlier ones. It may be assumed that, if he didn't explicitly criticize a practice of his own time, he accepted it as valid. This would certainly include all that is written here in Tobit.  Consequently, although in our Matthew passage Jesus says nothing about the amount to be given, elsewhere—in the story of the widow's two copper coins in Mk 12:41-44—he does. Jesus therefore agreed with much in the practices of sincerely pious Jews of his day.
But here, as in the previous section on the "Five Antitheses", Jesus is contrasting true piety with what was practiced by some hypocritical groups in his day.  In this passage he is mainly concerned about a hypocritical use of giving. It is the motive behind the deed that concerns him. The true disciple does what he does only for God to see, not to impress others.  And the reward mentioned here may be the same as Tobit's, namely the awareness of God's approval now in this life ("the face of God" turned toward you).  As a disciple you have to decide which is more important to you: others being impressed or God's face of approval turned toward you, and others totally unaware why.

How, you ask, are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction: we are to let our light shine before others so that they may glorify our Father in heaven, yet we are also not to let anyone know about our deeds of piety? The answer may lie in the intended audience. The light is to shine for outsiders—i.e., unbelieving friends—to see, and what impresses them are not acts that would impress fellow believers (such as time spent in prayer, money given to Christian causes, attendance at Bible study groups), but deeds of honesty, mercy and generosity. To outsiders we are "salt" and "light." But to insiders—fellow Christians—we are not primarily salt and light. It is in this latter category that we are to practice our piety toward God and not toward others. It is in this insider group that the temptation is strongest to impress others with prayer, Bible study, giving, attendance at meetings, etc. That is where Jesus' strong warnings against ostentation come into play.

Concerning Prayer, 6:5-15

Warning against hypocrisy

Prayer and alms are often linked in early Jewish texts from the time of Jesus and slightly before. In the book Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach we read: "Do not give up the practice of prayer, nor neglect giving alms" (7:10). In Jesus' time among Jews prayer was done at fixed times of the day, usually four times a day. This practice was preserved in the Early and Medieval Church monastic practice of praying at hours of the day and night. When possible it might be done in groups; hence, Jesus' mention of praying in the synagogues and on the street corners. Of course, there is nothing wrong with group praying. But private prayer was also practiced from earliest times in the OT. And in the book of Daniel we read of Daniel's faithful observance of private prayer several times a day. You remember that the Babylonian king outlawed praying to any god but himself, and Daniel risked a death sentence in order to continue to pray to God, and he was noticed.
But once again, in our Matthew passage Jesus is warning against putting on a show in prayer. How does one do that? One way is by doing it only in public and with great eloquence, which some Jews did in his time. 
Another way is by long-winded prayer, which Jesus says characterized the pagan gentiles in his day (6:7). Long wordy prayers are unsuitable for Christians, because we believe that God knows our situation and needs without being told all the details. Many congregational prayers spend too much time teaching God about himself.

This statement led Jesus to give a sample or model prayer that illustrated this brevity. It is what the ancients called the "Our Father" (Latin pater noster) after its opening words, and which most people today know as "The Lord's Prayer," a misnomer, because it was not the prayer that Jesus himself used, but one that he suggested for his disciples. You'll notice that this prayer is a group prayer, since it uses "we", "us" and "our", instead of "I", "me", and "my".

In Luke's report of Jesus' giving this prayer it is not in the context of teaching about brevity in prayer. Luke tells us that once after Jesus had been praying one of his disciples asked him to teach them as a group how to pray, just as John the Baptizer had taught group prayer to his disciples. This means that John too had had things to say about how one should pray, perhaps some of the same things that Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew. John too was a keen critic of the hypocritical piety of that time, as we know from the gospel accounts of his ministry. Jesus' words in Luke 11:2 simply indicate the disciples should use this prayer whenever they pray. But in Matthew the wording has a different emphasis: "This is the way you should pray," which stresses two things: (1) "you" is in contrast here not to John's disciples but to the hypocrites and pagans, and (2) "this is the way" focuses on the lessons Jesus has just given on privacy and brevity of disciples prayer.

The prayer Jesus then gave to the disciples can serve as a pattern for every type of prayer only in its brevity, because its content does not include elements that form an essential part of a disciple's prayer "diet": it contains no praise or thanksgiving, and the only sense in which it contains intercession for others is that since it is group prayer, "give us this day our daily bread and … deliver us from evil" could be thought of as our prayer also for all Christians.

Jesus gave this short prayer to illustrate the point he had just made: that prayer should be brief, concise and without any hypocrisy or pretense. But in its content it does not exhaust all elements of what disciples should pray for. that is why on Sunday mornings we are led in praise, confession, thanks and intercession by a pastor before we voice this group petition for ourselves as a conclusion.

Still, it is worth looking at the content of this prayer in order to see what needs it does meet.

The "Lord's Prayer" and final comment, 6:9-15
“Pray then in this way: 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 this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  (Matthew 6:9-15 NRSV)
(1) The words "our father" remind us of two significant facts: (a) "father" reminds us that God has become our loving protector and provider because we have believed in Jesus his Son, and (b) "our" reminds us that we are a family, voicing our common needs to him. Luke's version omits "who are in heaven," which in Matthew's version distinguishes God from our earthly fathers.

(2) "May your name be kept sacred" reminds us that the name of God expresses how we understand and conceive of him. We invest in the names "God", "Lord", "Father", "Savior", and "Jesus" all the attributes and character traits that we have come to understand from holy scripture. Since this verb is passive ("may your name be kept holy"), the identity of him or them who keep it holy is left unstated and undefined. It is possible even that God himself could be thought of as the subject. That is, we pray that God will keep his own many names and attributes holy for us to contemplate and adore. A second possibility is that we pray that we ourselves may always cherish the many names and descriptions of God and of Jesus and lovingly meditate on them. That we not treat these names and descriptions as something commonplace and ordinary, but as sacred gifts from God. A third possibility is that we are praying that the world not fail to see the holiness of God's character as expressed in his many names and titles. I think that Jesus may have meant to include all of these possibilities, and it would be good if we prayed this prayer slowly and reflectively, thinking as we do of all these possibilities.

(3) "May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is a prayer for the realization of God's redemptive plan for all creation: the bringing back into complete obedience to him of every creature. Luke's version is the simple "May your kingdom come," since what follows in Matthew's version means exactly the same thing, and ironically Luke's version demonstrates the ideal of brevity even better than Matthew's! With these words we pray for Jesus' return to earth, the elimination of all evil and evildoers, and the creation of a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is another expression of what the earliest Christians prayed daily: Maranatha ("Come, Lord Jesus!"). Secondarily, it is a prayer for the advance of the gospel and God's saving work among sinners today. It is important that such an eschatological prayer be part of every disciple's daily prayers, because it shows that we are not content with the world in the state it is, and that we long for the return of him who is its rightful ruler. To keep silent on this subject is to imply that we are doing fine without Jesus. And you and I both know that we are not. When Paul wrote to the Philippians that "our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ," he might well have substituted the word "king" for "citizenship," for he was voicing the same thought as this prayer. Paul doesn't say our king is in heaven and it is to there that we will eventually go; rather, he says that from there we are expecting the king to come again to earth.

(4) From the grander concerns for God's name and rule, our prayer moves on to the needs of us who are the earthly agents of that kingdom. In order to function faithfully as the King's advance guard we have legitimate needs. We now ask God to equip us for that task. First we ask for physical sustenance, what is called here "daily bread." Luke's version reads literally, "Keep giving us each day the food that we require," while Matthew's reads "This very day give us the food that we require." It is a minor difference. Both versions recognize that God will tend to our needs on a daily basis, just as with the manna in the wilderness. He will not necessarily give us a supply to last us for years, but will require us to depend on him and ask him for what we need each passing day. I admit that this is not what the verse says literally, but I interpret the food that we require to include all sorts of health needs as well. If we are to serve God daily as his agents in the work of the kingdom, we need the health and strength to do so. This is not to say that God may not include as part of someone's service a period in the hospital, or even a terminal illness during which he or she witnesses to the health care professionals. That may be the case. But the norm will be that we ask for sustenance and health sufficient and appropriate to our requirements to be good and faithful agents and workers. This is a disciples' prayer, and it is proper that we view each clause in it in that context. God commanded the ravens to feed Elijah in the wilderness so that he might continue to prophesy to the kingdom of Israel.

(5) 6:12 Agents of the King will always fail in their tasks because of laziness, negligence or willful disobedience of the rules. They will always need reinstatement and restoration to fellowship with the King. And so we come to "forgive us our debts," which means the same thing as "forgive us our sins/trespasses" in Luke's version. This request is amplified by the words "as we have forgiven our own debtors." In Matthew and Mark, Jesus makes it clear that our forgiveness depends upon our forgiving others. This is a difficult concept to those of us steeped in the Pauline form of teaching, for it sounds like earning forgiveness. But several parables of Jesus show just how seriously our Lord took this matter. The man forgiven a huge debt who then went out and punished a man who owed him much less was then called to account by his own creditor and severely punished. So I take this as a serious need that we as disciples must pray about daily: that we show the reality of God's grace to us by freely and promptly forgiving anyone who sins against us. Any day that we fail to practice this kind of forgiveness, we cease to function as Jesus' earthly agents.

(6) 6:13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. This is the phrase that in the traditional wording reads: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." There are two significant differences between the traditional rendering and better ones, such as what I had read this morning. First, all interpreters agree today that the text should be translated "deliver us from the evil one," meaning Satan. This may be thought only a minor matter, since the evil that we are tempted to do is ultimately from Satan. Still, it is important to understand precisely what Jesus asks us to pray for. It is Satan and his attacks, not just "evil" in some abstract sense, that we are to seek God's protection from.

More important, what is meant by "lead us not into temptation" in the traditional wording, or "do not bring us to the time of trial" in the newer rendering? "But deliver us …" clearly is intended as the contrasting action of God, for which we pray.  In … we are told that "God tempts no man"; so why should we ask him not to "lead us into temptation"? And how does leading us into temptation or trial form a contrast to "deliver us from the evil one"?  The opposite of God's rescuing us from the evil one would be allowing us to face Satan unaided and unprotected. This, therefore, must be the intended meaning of "do not bring us to the time of trial."  As we pray this phrase each week, we should think of it as equivalent to "Do not leave me to face the Devil unprotected, Lord! But save me from this Evil One!"

At this point the prayer that Jesus taught the Twelve came to an end. No "amen" was necessary in these ancient times. We use the "amen" in group prayer today largely to signal to those not leading the prayer that it has ended. Paul's prayers in his letters regularly have an "amen" at the end, perhaps also in some cases to signal the end. But he also indicates in 1 Cor 14:15-16 that the believers there were to use "amen" at the conclusion of group prayers spoken by others, much as we might say it after statements given from the pulpit that we heartily agree with. But prayers of Jesus recorded in the Bible never have an "amen." Compare Mt 11:25-26; Jn 11:42; and Jn 17. On the other hand, Jesus often prefixed the words "Amen, amen I say to you" to his most solemn claims and promises directed to his disciples. Our English translations usually render this as "verily, verily" or "truly, truly."

More significantly to those of us accustomed to the traditional Lord's Prayer, Jesus' words did not include "For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory." This concluding phrase appears fairly early in a document known as the Didache (Greek for "the teaching"), which dates to the end of the apostolic age. The early date of this document attests to the use of this phrase from the earliest churches, but  there is no indication that it was actually part of what Jesus himself taught the disciples to say. There is nothing wrong with our joining these earliest churches in saying it, but we should be clear in our minds that this was an addition. The purpose of the addition was to give assurance to the congregations speaking it that the God we pray to has the power to accomplish all of this and much more.

Concerning Fasting, 6:16-18

Most modern western Christians do not fast at all as a religious rite. Many decide to abstain from some favorite food during the season of Lent as a special sign of devotion to God, but this is not true "fasting," which in earliest times meant abstaining from both food and water for a set period of time, during which fasters wished to focus their minds intensely on prayer to God. Paul suggested to his Corinthian converts that married couples might even consent to abstain from sexual intercourse for a limited time for the same purpose.  Muslims and some other groups fast only during daylight hours and eat and drink after dark. This custom may have ancient prototypes, but it was not the biblical custom. Before facing Satan's temptations at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus fasted "forty days and forty nights" (Mt 4:2), as Moses had done on Mt. Sinai, when God gave him the law (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9).

Many have noted that by introducing verse 16 with the words "when(ever) you fast" Jesus assumes that some disciples will fast. But this is not quite the same thing as commanding or even recommending that all disciples do so. The point of the teaching here is not commanding a duty to disciples, but warning against an abuse of a voluntary practice.

Does God desire us to fast today? Most evangelical theologians would say there is nothing to indicate one way or another about this custom. There is certainly no theological objection to continuing this custom, which has old and honorable roots. Evangelical pastors and Christian counselors would only add that one should be careful not to damage your health by unwise or immoderate fasting.

There are many good ways to show God your devotion and earnestness in addition to or as a substitute for fasting. If it is not done trivially, there is nothing wrong with voluntarily abstaining from some pleasure for a time—perhaps something that you really want to purchase, but are willing to do without—just to show God how much you love him. But be careful not to "accidentally" mention it to other Christians and thus "inadvertently" impress them with your holiness—or your foolishness! Any kind of fasting should be totally confidential, between you and God, no one else.