Heavenly treasures

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Jesus has been discussing “practicing righteousness.” With these words, he appears to change the subject. Jesus has described how to give to others, how to pray, and how to fast. Now he addresses worldly concerns, such as worry, and loving money more than we love God.

Even if Jesus is making a transition to a new subject, this transition should not be viewed as a sudden change. His new thought remains connected to the previous thought. Jesus taught us to pursue our relationship with God while keeping God in mind. He tells us not to be religious (or “spiritual”) to impress other people. When people admire our holiness, their admiration is also a worldly treasure. If the admiration of other people for our holiness is the only reward we receive for our efforts, then all those good works are wasted efforts.

All the religions of the world agree that worldly riches are inferior to eternal riches. All religions agree that being wealthy in this lifetime is a paltry goal compared to the good that is possible for us in the future. Better teachers in the nonChristian world agree with Jesus that admiration from others is not sufficient reason to pursue a life of holiness and goodness. If we are going to be holy—if we are going to do what is right—we do good things for the sake of what is holy and what is right. We do not display our goodness to impress the neighbors who are less holy than we are.

Good deeds, prayers, and fasting, even when performed with God in mind, still are not heavenly treasures. These good deeds are done on earth, not in heaven. No matter how good we become, our good deeds can never equal the value of what God has stored in heaven for us, the good things that God has done for us.

Jesus lived a perfect life for us. He now gives us credit for the good things he accomplished. He freely gives us the rewards that he alone earned. Jesus fought the forces of evil, including death. He single-handedly won a victory; now he shares that victory with us. We will rise to eternal life in a new, perfect world; the power of that resurrection gives us strength even today. None of the things we do for God—not our gifts to the poor, not our prayers and fasting, not even forgiving those who sin against us—measures up to the value of what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus expects us to do good things. He expects us to strive to imitate his perfection. Whatever good we accomplish is not our treasure. Like money and other worldly wealth, our goodness in this sin-polluted world is easily corrupted or stolen. Our treasure is in heaven. Our treasure contains the gifts of Jesus, the blessings he bestows upon us. No power can corrupt those treasures or steal them away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

Remembering my uncle

He was my uncle. When I was a boy, he was also my neighbor, my keyboard teacher, and my mentor. He passed away December 23, 2019, at the age of 97.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather went to a famous food company and offered to work at any job they had available. They had him loading trucks for a few weeks, until one company official discovered that the new man was very talented mathematically. They hired him as a bookkeeper, a position he held for many years. By the end of the 1930s, my grandparents had purchased a farm house and three acres of land in a western suburb. They intended that their son and their daughter, after each of them married, could have a quarter of the property on which to build a house. My uncle and my mother accepted this gift, and so the family remained in close contact. Traveling east to west, or west to east, one would encounter a street, a front yard, a house, a back yard, a garden (two adjacent cultivated gardens, one belonging to each household), another back yard, another house, another front yard, and another street. Both households had a small orchard at the north end of the garden, and journeys through the orchards from one household to another were common. There were also paths from each household to my grandparents’ house to the south.

My uncle was hired as a chemist by the same company that had hired my grandfather. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His company was among the waves of soldiers that continued the invasion and occupation of German-held France in Normandy after D-Day; he and his fellow soldiers landed on June 8, 1944, the third day of the landing, and he saw action in France during the war.

He had two sons and two daughters. One daughter preceded him in death (due to cancer), and one son became estranged from the family. His four children were all older than me; in fact, during family gatherings I frequently joined the two sons of my cousin, playing in the basement while the adults visited upstairs. The family came together to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Even children’s birthdays were marked by multi-generational gatherings that featured cake, ice cream, and (for the adults) coffee.

When he was working outside, my uncle would frequently have a young boy following him. That boy was me. My uncle teased with riddles. (Can you identify the longest day of the year? It’s the day each fall when we turn back our clocks to end Daylight Saving Time, because that day lasts twenty-five hours.) I learned a great deal from my father and from my mother, but my grandparents and my uncle were also part of my life nearly every day.

My uncle played the piano. I am sure he taught his children how to play. My sister also took lessons from him. When she wanted to quit, I was ready to start. Since I was only in the first grade, my parents doubted that I was ready for lessons, but my uncle was willing to give it a try. I still remember the triumph of mastering the piece that had frustrated my sister, leading to her quitting and my starting the lessons. But I did not practice on a piano. My grandparents had an electric organ on which I would practice my assignment every weekday afternoon. When I thought I was ready, I would make an appointment with my uncle and play the piece for him. He would either suggest improvements or pass me and assign a new piece. We completed all three books of the Thompson Method, and then he suggested various classical pieces for me to learn. His favorite was Schubert’s “March Militaire.” Because I practiced on an electric organ, I did not learn the fine points of piano technique until I was in high school, where I finally had regular access to pianos.

Eventually I grew up, took on a full-time job, was married, had children, and only occasionally visited my parents. When I stopped by the old place for a visit, I usually took time to cross through the orchards and visit my uncle as well. In his later years he battled failing sight, hearing, and strength. Despite these limitations, his mind remained strong, and provided I didn’t mind shouting and repeating myself, I was able to converse with him.

The death of my uncle produces a mild melancholy, not a deep grief. He had a long and meaningful life, and I have many fond memories of our time together. I know that I will still think of him from time to time. I am thankful to the Lord for my uncle’s place in my life and in my memories. J.

When you fast

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

People who fast give up something voluntarily for a time. Generally, when we think of fasting, we think of giving up food, or at least some kind of food. Fasting can also meaning giving up an activity, such as video games or surfing the Internet. Some fasts are performed for religious reasons; others are done for medical reasons. Fasting often has a goal for this lifetime: a healthy body, or a clearer mind, or a better way of life.

Jesus assumes that we will fast for religious reasons. He assumes that fasting is part of our relationship with God. Jesus warns us not to fast to impress other people. He tells us to keep our fasting a secret that is known only to us and to God. Jesus could easily have added that fasting for other reasons, such as our own health, should not be confused with fasting for God.

Perhaps some of us would benefit from fasting. We might lose weight and improve our health. Such a fast is not rewarded by God, except in the way that his creation functions to reward our fasting with health benefits. If we fast to break a bad habit and gain control over our lives, that fast is also not rewarded by God aside from the rewards we receive through his creation. When we fast for worldly reasons, we are not fasting for God. Our goals may be good, and we may achieve them; but when we achieve those goals, we have received the only reward we will get for fasting.

We fast for God to show him that we love him. We fast for God to show him that nothing is more important to us than he is. When we choose to fast for God—whether we choose to go without food for a day or television for a week or chocolate for a month or alcohol for the rest of our lives—we learn self-control. By saying no to a desire, we learn to say no to temptations. We do this for God, as part of our relationship with him. We are not trying to improve ourselves or impress other people.

Some people treat their fasting as a way of bargaining with God, doing something for him that will force God to do something for us. Such an attitude reveals an unhealthy relationship with God. Some people try to force others to fast along with them, delivering a group message to God by their fasting. Such fasting is also not done in the spirit of what Jesus teaches regarding the privacy of fasting.

Fasting teaches us about Jesus—that is its greatest reward. When we give up something for Jesus, we remind ourselves of all that Jesus surrendered to rescue us. All glory belongs to him, and he is in charge of the universe. Yet he left his exalted position to live among us as one of us. Then, as one of us, he sacrificed his comfort, his freedom, his health, and even his life to pay for our sins and to claim us for his kingdom.

If our fast reminds us of what we want, we receive—at best—only worldly rewards for our fasting. When our fast reminds us of Jesus and his saving work on our behalf, then we receive an eternal reward. We have faith in Jesus. We have fellowship with him. Those gifts are worth far more than any other reward we might gain from fasting. J.

Merry Christmas

For the next few days, I will be living “off the grid” so that I can focus this Christmas season on Christ, on Church, and on family. I will return next week to continue my series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and to write of other things.

Let me take this opportunity to wish each of you a merry and blessed Christmas. May God richly bless you and those you love during this holy season and in the coming new year. And (as I said yesterday to two coworkers who are retiring), may you have as much fun and excitement as you want and as much peace and calm as you want. J.

Forgiveness

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

In his model prayer, Jesus had us promise to forgive those who sin against us. Now he reinforces that message with a strong warning. These verses frighten some Christians. Can we really lose the forgiveness of God by refusing to forgive another person?

These verses are spoken within the context of the higher expectations Jesus has for us. He says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” He expects us to do these things; he does not make them optional. In the same way, Jesus assumes that because we are forgiven, we will forgive. His blessings have changed our lives; they are making us more like Jesus.

When we refuse to be like Jesus, forgiving the trespasses of those who sin against us, we block the flow of forgiveness through our lives. When a river is dammed, the water behind the dam often stagnates. Jesus warns us of a similar thing that happens in our spiritual lives. When we are unable to forgive as Jesus forgives, we can cause our own spiritual lives to become stagnant and to die.

However, holding a grudge is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus died to rescue us from that sin as well as from all our other sins. We do not earn forgiveness from Jesus by forgiving others. His forgiveness is a blessing; it is a gift. It is not earned. Yes, we can lose that forgiveness by continuing to sin without wanting to change. When we prefer our sins to our Savior, we lose that Savior; he becomes, instead, a Judge. But saying we can lose his forgiveness does not imply that we can earn his forgiveness. In the matter of God’s forgiveness and our obedience to his commands, God always makes the first move. God always goes first.

In the prayer, Jesus employs this order: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God forgives first, and then we imitate him. God does not limit himself to our level, our ability to forgive. He forgives first, setting the standard, and then he invites us to be like him, offering us the strength to follow his lead.

Let’s imagine that someone has done something dreadful that hurt you. How can you forgive? Not from the goodness of your own heart, but only from the power of God’s gift. Jesus suffered and died on the cross to pay for all sins, including sins that hurt you. When you forgive the sinner who hurt you, you are sharing the promise of Jesus. When you refuse to forgive, you are keeping secret the life-changing promise from Jesus, a promise that every sinner needs to hear.

We cannot make ourselves more forgiving by trying harder to forgive. That road leads nowhere but to despair. We become more forgiving by drawing closer to Jesus, by remembering what he has done, and by believing his promises. When we remember that we are forgiven even for our failures to forgive—since forgiveness is a gift and not something we earn—then we become able to forgive those who sin against us. J.

Our Father

“Pray then like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done—on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Why return to an older version of English when praying this prayer? We know that there are no magic words; we know that God does not want to hear us babbling like pagans. Why, then, do so many Christians pray these exact words in this exact way? Why do we memorize these words, teach them to our children, and say them exactly this way when we gather for church services?

Sometimes, as Christians, we pray together. We unite our voices in prayer to God. When we join together for prayer, we find it helpful to say the same words, rather than each believer speaking a different prayer. Jesus himself gave us these words, although Matthew first wrote them in the Greek language. We use a translation into English that is four hundred years old. We do not update these words for the sake of those believers who learned them this way long ago. Moreover, we maintain this antique language and grammar in memory of those who prayed these words before us. The saints in Paradise prayed these words, and their voices from the past mingle with ours in the present when we approach our Father in the prayer that Jesus gave to his one true Church.

When Christians pray together, we unite around these words. When we go into our rooms and close the door to pray secretly to our Father, we are not bound by these memorized words. Jesus does not want to hear us rush through the words of this prayer, saying them as quickly as possible. Instead, Jesus intends this prayer to be an outline upon which we can hang all our joys and worries, hopes and fears, and everything we might want to discuss with God.

Many books have been written about this prayer. Martin Luther once said that, when he prayed this prayer properly, he could not finish in less than an hour. Many times he would pray only one portion of the prayer and leave other parts for the next day. This prayer is meant to be a very personal prayer; yet, it remains our prayer as we talk with our Father and ask him for our daily bread and to forgive our sins. When we pray this prayer, we pray not only for ourselves but for all the members of the Church on earth, those we know and those we have not yet met.

Jesus has us begin the prayer by talking to God about God. We call him Father, remembering that Jesus has paid to adopt us into his family. We celebrate his name, his kingdom, and his will. For many Christians, the hardest words to pray are, “Thy will be done.” We give God permission to do what he knows is best. When Jesus prayed those words in Gethsemane, he knew that his Father’s will for Jesus included the cross. God’s will may permit trouble, suffering, and even death in our lives. Binding the first half of the prayer together, we ask that God’s name be honored and his kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Then we speak to God about our needs. We pray for daily bread (not mine, but ours)—not cake and ice cream, but bread; not a year’s supply, but enough for today. Tomorrow we will pray about tomorrow’s bread. Next, we ask for the forgiveness of our sins, which is also a daily need. Yesterday’s sins were forgiven yesterday. We prayed about them yesterday; God has already forgiven them and forgotten them, so we do not need to mention them again. We promise to forgive others the same way we have been forgiven, which is also a daily concern. We have already forgiven the sins committed against us yesterday; we do not remember them today. Today we ask God for help to forgive those who have hurt us today. We ask God to lead us today, to keep us far from temptation. We ask God to rescue us today, to keep us safe from evil. We ask these things for ourselves, knowing that we will receive them, because each of them is part of God’s will for us.

Some Christians pray about the kingdom and the power and the glory; others do not. Some copies of the Bible have these words; others do not. Palestinians Jews frequently ended their prayers with a similar expression in the first century. Whether Jesus included these words as he talked about prayer does not matter, because prayer is not a magic formula that must be said in one precise way. These words are fitting because they echo the thoughts spoken at the beginning of the prayer. No harm can come from saying them; no harm can come from leaving them unsaid.

Christians have a custom of ending every prayer with a Hebrew word—“Amen.” This word expresses confidence and hope. It says that we know that God has heard our prayer and is answering our prayer. No magic resides in the word “Amen.” A prayer is no less a prayer if the word is not said. We want to express our confidence and hope, especially when we pray together. We affirm that we agree with all the requests spoken in the prayer, but especially we affirm our faith that God has heard our prayer and is answering it.

If you should pray at bedtime and should fall asleep before you reach the “Amen,” do not fear. God still hears your prayer. He will still answer your prayer. What could be more beautiful than falling asleep in the lap of your heavenly Father? J.

Your Father knows

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

People speak about “the power of prayer.” But prayer by itself does not have any power. The One to whom we pray has unlimited power. No magic words can be sprinkled into our prayers to force him to do what we want. God wants us to pray, but he does not want us to trust in the power of our payers. He prefers that we put all our trust in him.

The Gentile approach to prayer treats the words of prayers as if they have magical powers. Repetition is important for such prayers and incantations to work. In the Gentile world, special times are set aside for prayer and meditation, because those activities are seen as a source of power for the faithful Gentile.

Jesus denies to us these forms of babbling. He gives us no special words to use and no special times to pray. He places no value in the repetition of prayers. Rather, Jesus wants us to treat prayer as conversation with God. Talk to God in a way you would speak to anyone you respect. Have your mind on him as you pray, not on the mechanics of your prayer. Treat God as a Father who can be trusted to love you, to understand you, and to want what is best for you.

Failing to pray is a sin. The person who refuses to pray reveals that God does not matter to him or her. Misusing prayer is also a sin. Prayer itself can become an idol, something worshiped in the place of the true God.

Jesus makes genuine prayer possible for us. Our sins had come between us and God—including our sins of neglecting God and our sins of replacing God. Jesus cancels our sins by his sacrifice. His forgiveness opens channels of communication between us and God. Because the only Son of God sacrificed himself for our adoption, we now are children of God and are invited to call him “Father.”

Genuine natural prayer requires some effort on our part. Such prayer includes struggle, and often our prayers fall short of the ideal. The more we think about prayer, the more likely we are to change prayer into something God never intended it to be. Instead of thinking about prayer when we pray, we think about Jesus. We lift our prayers to the Father “in Jesus’ name,” but not because that name is a magic formula which guarantees that we will be heard and answered. We pray “in Jesus’ name” because the life of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection have made prayer possible for us. We pray because of Jesus. We pray with our minds and hearts set upon him. J.

When you pray

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

The help we give to others is a matter between ourselves and God. How much more, then, are the words we speak to God a matter between ourselves and God. When we talk to him, our reason is not to try to impress anyone else. Imagine a man who spoke to his wife in public to send a message to others rather than to communicate with her! If he was only showing off, if he did not really think of her while he spoke to her, what sad things that would tell us about their marriage!

For that reason, I am a little uncomfortable when people ask me to pray at an event. Jesus does not forbid us ever to pray in front of other people—he prayed aloud in the presence of others on several occasions—but he reminds us that every prayer is communication with God, not having the purpose of impressing other people. Prayers said in church services are said to God. Prayers said before a Bible class or a church meeting are said to God. Prayers said at any public occasion, such as a high school graduation or a session of Congress, are said to God. The person asked to pray at these occasions should remember that he or she is talking to God, even though that conversation is happening aloud in the presence of other people. A prayer must not be turned into a sermon, an effort to persuade people about something while they are forced to listen in silence. When a prayer is spoken as an attempt to preach or to persuade, God does not regard those words as prayer at all.

We have a wonderful privilege. We are invited to speak with our Maker, with the One in control of the universe, with the One who loves us so much that he came into this world to live for us and to die for us. How dare we take this opportunity to speak with God and use it instead for worldly purposes? Such manipulation is sinful. Like all sins, this sin is forgiven through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. His forgiveness is one more reason for us to talk with him in prayer. Whether we say our prayers hidden in our rooms or aloud in front of other people, we remember that we are speaking to a God who loves us and who cares—more than anyone else in our lives—about what we have to say. J.

When you give

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

Although giving to the needy necessarily involves another person, the act of giving still is largely between ourselves and God. In Jesus’ day, giving to the needy did not involve charitable organizations, income tax deductions, and other technicalities. Today the government allocates money to help the needy. As a result, some people lobby the government for more help or for different kinds of help. Hundreds of other organizations also help the needy; they are funded by contributions, which they seek to raise in a variety of ways. Not all the needy get the help they need from the government and from charities. Some beg on the roadsides for money, and others travel from church to church asking for money. Some are truly poor and needy. Others have chosen poverty and begging as a way of life. Many are under the control of addictions or other mental disorders. All the same, in the United States today, more ways of helping the needy exist than ever before in any time or any place.

Because there are so many ways to offer help to the needy—and because we all receive frequent reminders of the help that is needed—we easily forget that the help we give to others is a secret part of our relationship with God. The Lord has given most of us more than we need so we have the privilege of sharing what we have with others. We begin by helping the members of our family and those nearest to us. We continue by seeing what we can do to assist the needy person who crosses our paths. Merely handing out money does not meet the needs of all the needy. Instead, we can provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, clothing for those who lack clothing, and time to visit those who are sick or in prison or lonely. We have different opportunities to serve our Lord by helping the least of our neighbors. When we choose to give to charities, we take time to think—maybe even do some research—to make sure that our money, our time, and our resources are accomplishing the greatest good possible.

If we try to keep for ourselves everything the Lord has provided us, we sin against God and against our neighbors. When we waste our resources—even when we carelessly give to liars and con artists—we sin against God and against our neighbors who have real needs. (Yes, Jesus did say, “Give to everyone who asks.” At the same time, Jesus wants us to be wise stewards of the property he has entrusted to us. He wants each of us to do the most good possible with what we have.) Jesus stresses that, when we give to the needy to call attention to ourselves, we sin. Being self-centered about the help we give to others taints our giving, keeping it from being recognized by God as a good work.

We sin every day. We need God’s forgiveness every day. God forgives us every day. He sends us forgiveness as surely as he sends us daily bread, more than we need, so we can share what we have with others. Jesus sets an example for us to follow. When he healed the sick, he told them not to talk about it. He told them to keep the healing secret. Even today, as Jesus meets our needs for daily bread and daily forgiveness, he does it in a way that other people do not notice. Often, his gifts even escape our attention!

Because our sins are forgiven each day, we are free to be like Jesus. We are free to use what we have to help others. After all, God gave us more than we need so that our help given to others is part of our relationship with God. As we help, we are free to help quietly, so the matter remains secret between ourselves and God. J.

Practicing righteousness

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

To this point, Jesus has discussed prohibitions found in God’s Law: do not murder, or even surrender to anger; do not commit adultery, or even surrender to lust; do not resist an evil person. Even the positive commandment, love your enemies, is largely a prohibition against treating people in response to what they have done in the past or what they might do in the future. Each of these commandments relates to our neighbors, the people we encounter in this world.

Jesus now speaks of positive things and of things pertaining to our relationship with God. He describes three things God expects us to do: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Jesus does not question whether we will do these things—he firmly says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” These are positive actions, but Jesus adds one prohibition: we are not to do these things in a way that calls attention to ourselves from other people.

In this tightly-knit set of teachings, Jesus repeats a refrain. He says that what we do to impress people here on earth will be ignored by our Father in heaven. Only the things we do secretly, thinking about God and not about other people, are seen and rewarded by God. Our relationship with him is an inner relationship, a matter of the heart. When we start trying to impress people—when we want to be recognized on earth as holy, religious, spiritual, or good-hearted—we omit God from our spiritual life.

Other religions know this as well. What matters most in many religions is a relationship with the divine. Things done for attention here on earth are ignored in heaven. God is our first priority; everything else is forgotten as we draw near to God.

Many teachers would frown even at Jesus’ mention of a reward from our Father in heaven. If we do holy things to earn a reward, we are not really doing them for God. What sounds like a paradox is actually sensible: Whatever we do on earth to earn a reward earns no reward; whatever we do to serve God without seeking a reward will be rewarded.

Jesus plainly says that God rewards those who seek him. His reward is not measured in worldly ways—in money or influence or even good feelings. We are not invited to tell God what reward he should give us. God chooses the rewards he gives. He has already given us gifts and blessings, including the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the new creation. We have the kingdom of heaven. We will be comforted. We will inherit the earth. We will be satisfied. We will be shown mercy. We will see God. We will be called sons of God. What reward do we need or want beyond these gifts? God chooses fitting rewards for those who seek him. He has selected rewards for all those who set aside the things of this world because their hearts already are in the kingdom of heaven. J.