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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 6
February 24, 2013 - Second Sunday in Lent

         He liked to buy drinks for his friends. He wanted to be accepted by other young men who were above him in social class. So he bought them gifts and paid for expensive parties. It worked. He became popular and was even seen as the leader of a little band of party animals with whom he hung out.

         I’m talking about St. Francis of Assisi… before he became a saint. A new biography of Francis tries to dig into some of the reality behind all the legends which grew up around him.[1] In the process, the biographer tells us that Francis was generous even before his generosity became more deep and more holy. Giving was basic to this young man’s character. It was almost an obsession.

         As God began to wrestle with Francis, he aimed his giving in a different direction. Still at home and working in his father’s mercantile business, he gave away food and clothing. He would pull off his shirt and give it to a beggar. He would get his mother to pile loads of food on the table and then carry it out in the street to distribute. Once when he was busy in the shop, a poor man came begging and Francis brushed him off. A few minutes later he felt so bad that he went running after him to press some money into his hand.

         The biographer speculates that at that time in his life Francis was probably motivated like many people in the medieval world and in our own time as well. He was trying to atone for his sins by his acts of generosity. He gave first to be accepted by his friends. Then he gave in order to be accepted by God.

         Francis’s generosity started with an ulterior motive. The son of a successful merchant wanted to be friends with nobility, so he made a show of giving them gifts. When he found himself wanting to be friends with God, he made a show of giving Him gifts in the form of kindness to the poor.

         At the beginning of Matthew 6, our famous chapter of the Bible today, Jesus has something to say about giving or any act of piety or holiness that is done as a show. It’s as pitiful as a young man trying to purchase friendship by buying drinks. It may have some rewards, but it’s far from the best reward, far from the best way to live.

         You may get the impression that this chapter, this central part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, is just a mishmash. It feels like He hops from one subject to another, just spinning off whatever comes to His mind. I’ve heard preachers like that, but that’s not Jesus. There is a theme here, a connection, and that connection through all of chapter 6 is giving.

         Jesus starts, of course, with what Francis did as a young penitent, the practice of giving alms, to use the old fashioned word. By a long chain of transitions in pronunciation, the word “alms” derives from the Greek word used here, which means something like “acts of mercy.” Jesus pictured a person who made a big show out of giving gifts to the poor.

         As far as we can tell historically, no one ever actually did what Jesus imagines here, going out and blowing a trumpet to announce he was about to place a coin in the hand of a beggar. No, it’s a sarcastic exaggeration of the attitude of a person who does want everyone to know that he is making such a gift, whether it’s by some flamboyant act in public or by telling anyone who cares to listen about how much and how often he gives.

         Instead of that hypocrisy, which is literally a kind of play-acting at doing what is good, Jesus called for giving to be done quietly, even secretly, hiding even from ourselves the good deed being done. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” means that we not only do not seek congratulations from others for our generosity, but that we do not even congratulate ourselves. Instead, we seek God’s approval.

         Jesus went on to say the same thing about prayer and fasting. He picked up the three main practices of Jewish religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The same practices figure prominently in other religions. They are the center three of the five “pillars” of Islam, the cardinal duties of every good Mus­lim. Whether it’s Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or Christianity, giving, prayer and fasting are what holy people do.

         As I quoted from John Wesley last week about fasting, Jesus just assumed here that His followers would do these things. Jesus did not say, “If you give…,” or “If  you pray…” He said “when” you give or pray or fast, here is the spirit in which you are to do it. It’s the spirit previewed in verse 1. Don’t do it as a show before other people. Do these things to be blessed and rewarded by God.

         What I came to realize as I read this whole chapter as a unit and tried to see how it all fit together is that the rest of it, everything Jesus says here, is about becoming the kind of person who is seeking God’s reward and only God’s reward. He is telling us what we need to learn in order to become good givers rather than people who do things like giving or praying because we want to be liked or even because it’s our duty.

         Matthew 6 is all aimed at the cultivation of a genuine spirit of generosity, at becoming people who are able to give freely and unselfconsciously, out of love for God and love for others. It’s a way of life by which we become more like Jesus, more like God.

         Wanting to be like God feels more than presumptuous. It feels blasphemous, the epitome of arrogance. Yet over and over Scripture asks for that to be our aim. Jesus asks that. Right before our text, in the last verse of chapter 5, He told us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Chapter 6 is just telling us how to do that.

         The rewards Jesus talks about here, as He asks us to practice our piety with an eye to God, are not things like popularity or success in business or, as a few of us heard Thursday night, a life free from suffering. No, the reward that comes from God is a life like God’s. The reward is knowing how to give, and in giving to become truly blessed and truly happy.

         One of the few sayings of Jesus found outside the four gospels is in Paul’s last message to the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. He concluded the story of his ministry by quoting Jesus in Acts 20:35 saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That was the aim of Paul’s whole life. He caught and lived by what Jesus taught us right here in Matthew 6. He sought blessedness and happiness that came from learning to give.

         That same lesson is learned by every good follower of Christ. Francis became Saint Francis as he learned it. His acts of generosity came less out of a need to demonstrate something and more out of a simple spirit of love and generosity. One of the pivotal moments of his life was when he took off not only his shirt, but all his clothes and gave them away to a beggar, putting on the poor man’s thin, ragged tunic. G. K. Chesterton said about Francis that, “He was above all things a great giver…”

         You may be wondering how prayer and fasting fit into this. At first blush they don’t seem to be about giving, but they are. The first thing Francis did while wearing that beggar’s rags was to go to a little church and pray. What Jesus says about prayer and fasting is here to help mold us into givers.

         In verses 5 and 6 Jesus said about prayer something similar to what He said about almsgiving. Don’t pray for show, to impress others. Then He expands His thoughts on prayer and in verses 9-13 gives us what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Not much about giving it seems. But look at how Jesus introduced His model prayer. In verse 7 He warns against praying with heaps of words and empty, flowery phrases. And then in verse 8 tells us not to do that, why? Because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

         So much of our praying is about what we need. And Jesus tells us not to worry so much about that. Our Father knows. He doesn’t need a long, eloquent shopping list from us in order to take care of our needs. He knows and is ready to provide. And if we have what we need, then we will also be equipped to share with those who are in need.

         It happens that way even on the spiritual level. As we pray for our forgiveness, trusting that God will give it, Jesus tells us to be ready to offer forgiveness to others. Even in the way we pray, we are preparing our hearts to give.

         We spoke about fasting last week, so I won’t say much more about it other than to note that both last week’s text from Joel 2 and part of this chapter from Matthew are readings for Ash Wednesday. My son-in-law noted the incongruity between Jesus telling us in verse 16 not to be like hypocrites who “disfigure their faces” when they are fasting and putting ashes on our foreheads on that Wednesday evening. Aren’t we doing the opposite of what Jesus said when He told us to make a secret of our fasting?

         No, not if displaying the ashes is not the point. We don’t wear them so others will congratulate us on our spiritual discipline. We wear them to remember that we are dust, to remember what fasting is supposed to teach us. We came into this life with nothing and we will carry nothing out of it. We remind ourselves how material things disintegrate and we give up some of those things in order to rememberthey are not what we need most.

         And if we can do without food or some other pleasure for a little while, then we will be that much more ready to let go, to give them away for God’s service, to someone else who needs them more. Ashes and fasting are a spiritual discipline which lead straight to the teaching in verses 19 through 21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”

         Once again, this is about giving. It’s not about earning spiritual mileage rewards for every prayer you offer or church service you attend. As Jesus makes clear in verse 21, it’s about what we do with our treasure, with our money and possessions. We miss this sometimes because in thinking about giving we get verse 21 turned around. We imagine that what Jesus said was “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”

         In other words, we get the idea Jesus wants our money to follow our hearts. So churches and other organizations raise money by plucking your heart strings. Bring tears to your eyes with pictures of hungry kids, or homeless puppies. Tell you moving stories of villages that need clean water or young people longing for a school in their community. That’s all good. But the idea is to get your heart there and then your giving will follow.

         Jesus said to give first. Put your treasure where God wants it to be. Put it in the service of heaven’s work. Then your heart will follow. Give and put what you have where God wants it. After that you will start feeling in your heart the importance of what God is doing. Don’t wait for some preacher or fund raiser to move your heart. Move your money to where it’s needed and your heart will come right along behind.

         Paul said all this in our lesson from Philippians 3. He talked about people who never learned to fast, “whose god is the belly.” “Their minds,” he explained, “are set on earthly things.” But we Christians, says Paul, know that “our citizenship is in heaven.” That’s where we are putting our treasure. That’s our eternal retirement plan.

         In the Old Testament language of Proverbs, it wasn’t the heart that moved giving, it was the eye. It isn’t how you feel but how you see that makes you generous. That’s why verses 22 and 23 fit in here. They aren’t off topic. Jesus was still talking about giving. In English, Proverbs 23:6 talks about people who are “stingy,” but literally they are people with an “evil eye.” Likewise in Proverbs 28:22 we hear the word “miser,” but it’s a man whose eye is evil. Conversely, in Proverbs 22:9, the blessing on those who are “generous,” is literally “He who has a good eye is blessed, because he shares his bread with the poor.”

         In light of those verses from Proverbs, Matthew 6:22 and 23 make perfect sense. A good, healthy eye, a generous spirit, brings health to your whole being. On the other hand, an unhealthy, evil eye, a closed-in, selfish spirit, leaves your whole being in the dark. And the darkness of selfishness, says Jesus, is great darkness.

         Verse 24 tells us that ultimately the question of giving is really about whom we are serving. Is our master God or is it money? If you can’t walk away from someone or something, then it has a hold on you. It has power over you. If we can’t let go of our money, if we can’t give it away, then money is in control of us, whether or not we know or admit it.

         In the end, says Jesus, the aim for us is to cultivate a spirit, a life in which we let God be our Master, in which we trust in God by giving away at least some of what we have rather than trusting in what we have. That’s why the closing word of this chapter on giving starts out in verse 25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

         It can feel really hard to have the attitude Jesus talks about here, to be like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, just trusting God and accepting whatever He does or does not give us. All kinds of things raise our anxiety, make us worry.

         We talked to our daughter Joanna on Thursday and I couldn’t quite enjoy the conversation because I was worried about money. She wanted to do her own tax return and I wanted to make sure she was doing it right. She talked about moving off campus next year and I was wondering how that would affect financial aid and what it would cost, not to mention whether it would be safe.

         My precious child was sitting there excited about what was happening in her life, about her upcoming study in China, about her work this summer, about her relationship with a guy who obviously cares about her. All I could do was worry about her basic needs.

         What I should have realized then and do now is the truth about God which Jesus taught us through flowers and birds. If a flawed human being like me cares so much about the needs of my child, how much more does our perfect and generous heavenly Father care about us His children? Won’t He take care of everything you and I need and more? If we can only remember that, then we will be as free as the birds, and able to give.

         It takes practice. That’s why almsgiving and prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines. If we get out of practice, or if we never have begun, it’s harder. I hadn’t played racquetball for about six weeks. Then I went and played a match on Thursday. I woke up Friday stiff and sore in muscles I hadn’t used for too long. The spiritual muscles we use for giving are like that. If your church and missionaries and those in need seem to ask for you to give all the time, it’s only because you need to regularly exercise your “generous maximus” if you don’t want to end up with a stiff and sore spirit every time you open your purse or wallet for God.

         Francis learned and practiced this lesson his whole life. The biographer tells how even near the end, when he was sick, he gave away his coat yet again to a beggar. His followers were worried that he needed it to stay warm. So they went to the beggar to get it back. Francis insisted that they take money and pay the man to give back the coat he had received for nothing. That’s a good eye. That’s seeing life the right way.

         You get it, I believe. Last Sunday you filled up a box with coats and socks and hats for people who have none. Every Sunday you make offerings that light this room and warm classrooms where children learn about Jesus. Many of you support missionaries or Food for Lane County or a child in another country. You know by experience and practice that it is more blessed to give than to receive. May that blessing and a deep sense of God’s care for you fill your life as you give.

         If you haven’t tried it, then I invite you to discover what Jesus was talking about, what Francis found, what many people here have learned. There is a deep and abiding joy in giving away what you have. It starts by giving your life to Jesus Christ in trust and faith and it just goes on and grows from there.

         G. K. Ches­terton told how St. Francis died. When he knew his time was near, he took off his clothes one last time and laid down on bare ground to wait for God. And Chesterton writes that when the stars passed over him dying there they “had for once, in all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down upon a happy man.”[2] That happiness, that blessing, belongs to anyone who trusts Jesus and lives a life like Jesus lived, giving whenever you can.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Augustine Thompson, St. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[2] St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Image Books, 1957), p. 82.

Last updated February 24, 2013