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Winter Quarter: Honoring God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 9, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8
Secondary study text for reading: Ecclesiastes 5:1-6
Key Verse: Matthew 6:1
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do you will have no reward in heaven.
To note and understand the stark distinction Jesus makes between self-serving acts of piety and acts that humbly honor God.
Today’s lesson is structured differently for study. The lesson manual does a great service in addressing the various subjects Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount. This lesson is less about “what we do” and is much more related to “why we do it.” After the background, we will examine the theological and experiential teaching of Jesus in this profound moral statement in Matthew 6. Thus, headings are used rather than examining each verse individually. The heading and our study of the heading includes reflections on the verses used in the lesson manual.
Theological, geographical, and experiential background for study:
Matthew 5-7 is recognized by most as the Sermon on the Mount. One of the ways to think of this message is to ask, “What would life be like should God’s Kingdom fully become a reality on earth as it is in heaven?” The Sermon on the Mount is really a description of Jesus’ own character and the manner in which he conducted his life. In other words, this is not a “do like I tell you” sermon; this is a “do as I do.” Jesus equates the morality of this sermon with the Kingdom of God. When God reigns, this is what life is like and what it means.
Let’s think for a moment of who is listening to his sermon. The masses of ordinary Galilean people represent the greater number in his audience. However, some of the religious leaders and powerful religious lawyers are very near, most likely standing in places that allow them to be easily seen. Their intent is to trap Jesus with his own words, attempting to accuse him of violating the Law. However, the uneducated Galileans are fascinated and interested. No one has ever talked to them as Jesus, and certainly no one has preached what Jesus preaches. He actually speaks to them as though they matter, because they do. Imagine the setting of sitting on a flat plain near the Sea of Galilea and hearing words that literally shook their world. Usually, it is the sea that provides them with food and life. Today, Jesus is the one giving them a holy food and offering a remarkable life. This sermon is considered one of the most moral statements ever made by a religious leader of any religion. One very liberal theologian considered Jesus’ moral and ethical teaching so noble and high it could only have been because they were preparing for the end of the world. No, Jesus’ teaching was for the world, and especially for the daily world of men and women from every station of life.
The God-honoring piety that unites
To gain an adequate understanding of the setting we need to also understand the theological, social and economic dynamics Jesus was addressing. We should never make the mistake of assuming that people who do well in life only succeed through greed or ambition. Everyone has different gifts and graces and roles that we fulfill in life. However, there existed a theological belief in Jesus’ day that separated the wealthy and powerful from the masses. I have cited this belief in prior lessons. It is the Retribution Principle. It simply means that people believed if you were wealthy, healthy, and powerful it was because you were righteous. You and your family had kept the law and prospered. However, the inverse was believed to be true. If you or your family were poor, sick, and a member of the masses it was because you had not gained the favor of God. This distinction separated the people into classes and social groups. The wealthy Pharisees, Sadducees, and political leaders looked down upon the masses in condescension. Most of the well-educated Jews lived near the temple and in Jerusalem. However, the Galilean were perceived as blue-collar and uneducated. The Galilean people looked upon the powerful with mistrust. The powerful looked upon the Galilean’s as lacking and morally weak. Of course, there were always exceptions. Still, the world of Jesus was extremely divided, and having the Romans occupy a land they considered to be their own added to the hostility.
The Sermon on the Mount went right to the heart of the division and the need for a higher morality that every man and woman could embrace and enjoy.
What does the Sermon on the Mount have to say about the divisions we recognize today? What are those divisions, and what makes them possible? How does the Kingdom help eradicate them?
God-honoring piety and godly motivation
Ours is not a culture that highly values humility and silent obedience. Even the term “trash talk” has become a phrase employed by our culture in relation to sports. A man once asked me what a person could do to help their pastor conduct their eulogy one day. My answer that day is the same answer I would now give. “Live in such a manner that everyone is already familiar with the righteous and pious acts I would love to share with those in attendance.”
This lesson is part of the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t just concerned with the moral and ethical acts we choose; it is equally concerned with the spirit in which we do them. Acts of charity will eventually be known, for they involve lives and especially the lives of the needy. However, we should do them as though we want no one to know of them but God. It is helpful to ask ourselves, “Would I do this act of piety or morality if no one saw it or ever learned of it?” I have listened to many stewardship sermons, and given too many of my own, that claim we are blessed when we give to Jesus. But this isn’t “the Kingdom” reason for giving. We give because it is the right thing. It is a high, noble, joyful meaningful act that is done because it is right, moral, and gives life. Is there blessing associated with giving? Certainly. However, Jesus isn’t addressing what we do and what we gain by doing charity. He is addressing “Why we do them!”
We have many statements and accounts from the gospels that describe the moral acts and teachings of Jesus. Yet, from the Sermon on the Mount we can assume Jesus did so many others about which no one knows. John wrote that he could not write a tome large enough to contain all that Jesus said and did.
We live in a culture that places a high value on attention and fame. Can you name a recent act by yourself or another in which it was obvious the act was not done for self? When you are alone, make a list of the charitable acts in which you have recently participated and ask, “Why did I do it?” If there was reward associated with the action, ask, “What was that reward?” And, “Is it the kind of reward Jesus preached in Matthew?”
God-honoring piety and the Kingdom of God
The Sermon on the Mount is also referred to as the Kingdom of God. We often mistakenly associate God’s Kingdom as a place. The eternal and transcendent cannot be bound or defined by human definitions or limitations. The Kingdom always transcends our best and highest expressions of beauty and joyful morality. As previously cited, The Sermon on the Mount is actually a great description of Jesus’ character. It represents who he is and why he did what he did and does what he does.
A quiet, humble, righteous life is the Kingdom of God within us. It represents the very character of Jesus indwelling the human soul. The Kingdom isn’t a place where we go after death. It is a manner of living while in this world, a manner that can bring the highest joy and meaning. After living in God’s Kingdom here, we pass into the eternal which is far beyond our imagination.
Prior to this lesson, have you equated or associated moral and ethical action with the Kingdom of God? How do you define the Kingdom of God? Where do you see the Kingdom of God alive and moving in the world today? How is Jesus’ moral behavior and the Kingdom associated?
God-honoring piety and reward
Jesus said people who say their prayers on street corners or give in public “already have their reward.” What is that reward? The reward is the reward most people want in this life. Recognition for selfish reasons. But this is not the reward the Christian desires. Our reward is the opposite. Yes, people will eventually learn of our piety, but the only recognition we would ever desire is that it was life giving, it was the character of Jesus in us as a gift. The reward of piety is the joy of being able to be pious.
We live in this world, but also in an “unseen world.” The acts of the Kingdom are seen, but the deep, truly moral motivation is seen only by God. Jesus taught that giving is so intimate and personal the right hand would not know of the actions of the left.
Our reward is a reward much of the world doesn’t understand. Its highest expression would become the cross of Jesus. The world saw what happened, but not the unseen redemption of the world occurring. It makes no sense for one to suffer and die so the world would know how deeply its creator loves them. But our faith isn’t sensible, it is foolish to the world. It isn’t sensible, but it is real and powerful and transformative.
Living as Jesus lived, and for the reason he lived is its own reward. The privilege of talking to God is its own reward. The privilege of suffering for another to understand how deeply they are loved is its own reward. Again, the world will always struggle to understand the concept of reward as taught by Jesus.
On a simple level, Jesus is confronting hypocrisy. Confronting hypocrisy was something everyone could understand. But not everyone can understand doing something moral and ethical because we find our reward in living like Jesus.
How would you previously have defined “reward” as related to Christian action? What is the great danger in seeking reward as defined by the values of our culture? What is the great benefit of seeking God’s reward?
Motivation was an extremely important issue for Jesus. Christianity begins in the heart, and then the heart creates outer action. Jesus clearly taught it is the way we think in our heart and the motivation of the heart that has everything to do with Christian living. It is for this reason that he asked that we not judge another. The judging begins in our own heart. And, it begins with me asking one basic, important question, “Why do I do what I do?” Read the entire Sermon on the Mount and notice the moral courage Jesus possessed in preaching it, and the great cost to him when he lived it.
Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your Kingdom. Empower us to understand the beauty and life that is offered in selfless giving. Teach us to be a people of the heart, so that our reward is found in pleasing you above all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.