Ash Wednesday Sample from
2011-03-07 by David Howell

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This lectionary pericope, from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount (immediately following Jesus’ exhortation to perfection [Mt 5:48; see also 5:20!]), omits the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13) and its bracketing material (6:7-8, 14-15). In the passage, Jesus describes the kind of genuinely pious behavior that characterizes those whose identity and lives are in conformity with the reality and values of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:1-2 seems to imply that Jesus’ words were directed primarily (if not exclusively) toward the disciples, but 7:28-29 indicates that Matthew envisions the crowds as also among Jesus’ addressees.

The first verse, which warns against making unnecessarily public displays of piety (lit. "justice," "righteousness" [BAGD suggests "righteousness in the sense of fulfilling divine expectation not specifically expressed in ordinances"]) designed to gain human honor and approval, seems to make Jesus’ overarching point, serving as an introduction to the entire passage. In addition to providing a bridge to the material at the end of the chapter (vv. 22-34), verses 19-21 effectively summarize the section—pointing to the utter foolishness of those who waste their efforts by devoting themselves to things (including human approval) that do not endure.

The intervening statements in verses 2-6 and 16-18—all of which are framed casuistically ("When you…")— illustrate the warning highlighted in verse 1 by offering relevant examples of activities characteristic of first-century Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (cf. Tobit 12:8-9). This illustrative section consists of a repetitive, parallel pattern (partially obscured by the location of the Lord’s Prayer [vv. 6:7-15], though elements in the pattern also appear there), as follows: "When…" (A/A’) / imperative (B/B’) / motive (C/C’) / reward (D/D’). For example, the casuistic "when" clause referring to almsgiving in verse 2 (A) is repeated in verse 3 (A’). Each topic (such as almsgiving) includes two imperatival commands (B: "don’t blow a trumpet before you" [v. 2]; and B’: "don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" [v. 3]), the first of which (see also vv. 5 and 16) includes comparison to "the hypocrites." References to motive, both inappropriate (C: "so that they may be praised by others" [v. 2]) and appropriate (C’: "so that your alms may be done in secret" [v. 4]) are made in each case. Finally, there are references to reward, linked either to human approval (D: "they have their reward" [v. 2]) or to divine approbation (D’: "your Father who sees in secret will reward you"; note the close relationship implied by the reference to "your Father,’ indicating that the one whose approval truly matters is actually a closer relation than almost any others whom a person might otherwise seek to impress).

Verses 1 and 19-22 lack the "when" clauses (A; A’) characteristic of the illustrative material in verses 2-6 and 16-18, underscoring their framing and summarizing function. (Note that v. 1 contains only B’, C’, and a negative twist on D’. Verses 19-21 include B-B’ [with the references to moths and corrosion functioning as explanatory statements similar to comments about "the hypocrites" cited elsewhere] and D-D’; motive [C-C’] is less evident in verses 19-21 [though "for yourselves" and "heart" seem to point in that direction]. Verses 19-21 (cf. Luke 12:33-34) thus move quickly to the idea of reward ("treasures"), explaining in the process what happens when motive [represented by the "heart," v. 21] is inappropriate [i.e., directed toward earth as opposed to heaven].)

The second person Greek pronoun ("you") seems to alternate in a rhetorically patterned way—the notable exception is almsgiving (all singular pronouns)—between the plural ("y’all" [vv. 1, 5, 16, 19-20]) and the singular ("you" [vv. 2-4, 6, 17-18, 21) The use of the plural pronoun effectively reminds the listener/reader that everyone is susceptible to hypocrisy; the singular pointedly draws each individual into the discussion in a specific and personal way, emphasizing the necessity that each person participate actively and concretely (beyond hypotheticals) in the life of the kingdom.

The text is a study in contrasts. Again, actions done with the motive of human recognition are distinguished from actions that are done only for recognition by God (note the use of purpose clauses pointing to behavioral motivation). In fact the very arrangement of the passage highlights contrasts between hypocritical and genuine behavior: "Here is what some do. Don’t do that. Do this." There is also a contrast between actions that are done visibly (again, for recognition by others) and actions that are done anonymously, in secret (for God’s eyes only, as it were); particularly intriguing is the encouragement to hide one’s fasting, not by going into a private room (as in the case of prayer, v. 6) and thus becoming physically invisible, but by coming out into the open (washed and anointed, v. 17) and thus being both visible and secretive at the same time. Locations also seem to be contrasted throughout the passage: some things are located in heaven (e.g., God the Father, treasures stored appropriately) or in other invisible locations (e.g., a secret room with the door shut), whereas some things (inappropriately) occur in very public locations (e.g., streets, synagogues). Worthless and worthwhile rewards are certainly contrasted throughout the passage.

The intricate patterns and contrasts in the passage serve to emphasize the difficulty humans have in maintaining complete devotion to God and avoiding the temptation to hypocrisy. Eduard Schweizer aptly captures the radical distinction between appropriate piety and hypocrisy as it comes to expression in verse 3: "If a man’s left hand no longer knows what is being done, then his heart, which might expect a reward for it, also does not. Here is accomplished the breakthrough that eliminates all thought of measuring one’s achievements so as to claim an appropriate reward, from other men or even from God."1

Where is the heart ("the center of human commitment and decisions")2 located—in heaven or on earth? That is the question that verse 21 emphasizes at the end of the passage. Seeking a reward by doing things others will see actually relegates any such reward to nothing more than the fleeting and misguided recognition one gets from others. By contrast, actions that receive no human praise (or at least are not oriented to it in a hypocritical fashion) show both that one’s heart is appropriately located in heaven and that a true reward will be forthcoming from God—the reward has been stored up appropriately.

It is worth reflecting on the way verse 21 is phrased. As someone whose worldview is almost inescapably informed and influenced by North Atlantic consumption patterns and tendencies, it strikingly counter-intuitive to read that one’s "treasure" determines the location of the "heart"—that the heart effectively follows one’s treasure. Most of us probably tend to think of the heart as being able to determine what is to be treasured (e.g., What our hearts want is what we devote ourselves to, what we spend our money on, and so forth.) Jesus turns that equation around. Treasure captivates the heart. Jesus thus challenges his listeners to consider how an inappropriate goal (e.g., human reward, earthly treasure) can control the heart itself: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." In this regard, the connection between verses 19-21 and the material that follows (vv. 22-34) is quite strong (see, especially vv. 24, 33). Whether Jesus’ followers seek external affirmation and approval (vv. 1-6, 16-21) or daily needs (vv. 25-34), the appropriate source, according to Jesus, is God "your Father" (vv. 1, 4, 6, 8, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; cf. v. 9). Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 emphasizes that only God can ultimately provide truly meaningful approval (vv. 4, 6, 18); therefore, even though we may be tempted to seek human affirmation, there is next to nothing to be gained from hypocritical piety.

Michael Barram

Saint Mary’s College of California


1. The Good News According to Matthew, trans. David E. Green (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 144.

2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000), 173

The Transfiguration: So What?
2011-03-04 by David von Schlichten

Why should we care about the Transfiguration? What does it mean for us?

Stephen Schuette provides some helpful thoughts about the significance of the Transfiguration and the nature of reality. Scroll down to read his post, as well as others.

Maybe the Transfiguration reminds us that the glory of God is among us, even when it seems like it is not.

Maybe the Transfiguration underscores Jesus' superiority over Moses and Elijah.

Maybe the Transfiguration points to how God transfigures you and me.

Maybe all of the above? None? What do you think?

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Bright Clouds
2011-03-04 by Stephen Schuette

The old hymn by William Cowper:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head.  (God Moves in a Mysterious Way)

Bright clouds are an oxymoron.  Oh, maybe they can be seen in the distance at sunset.  But how can you be “overshadowed” with a “bright cloud” above you?  Or for that matter how can a person be aglow with light, the face itself shining like the sun?  Sure, medieval and renaissance paintings have the gold around the countenance but we live in the age of realism.

Or do we?  Maybe we’re just living in Plato’s cave and don’t see the clouds or each other or Jesus for what/who they are.  If we did truly see we’d recognize the New Creation.

Perhaps the deepest question that the story of the transfiguration rasies is what is real?  Was the fleeting vision on the mountain a temporary distortion or was it a revelation of what is always true but we are too blind to see?  And even though it might not be humanly possible to sustain the vision, does coming down the mountain really mean that it's back to the world of shadows as if you haven't seen?  To "tell no one" has to be one fo the most difficult requests Jesus ever made of his disciples.  Yet the difficult truth, and perhaps Jesus knew, is that you can't tell someone how to see.  They must see for themselves.

Vote GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermons
2011-03-03 by David Howell

Vote GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermons

Email for code to vote.

Vote for one sermon by March 8.

2011 Graduating Seminarians have submitted sermons to be eligible for the 2011 GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermon Award. A voting system is in place until March 8. The top 3 vote receivers will then be asked to prepare a YouTube version of a sermon. Then another voting system will be in place, and the person with the most votes will receive a complimentary registration to the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, $200.00 in expense money, and be recognized at the Festival on Monday evening.

Sample from this week...
2011-03-01 by David Howell

Understanding Matthew 17:1-9 

by Herman C. Waetjen

Matthew’s gospel bears the structure of a shattered Pentateuch. It is composed of five books, each consisting of narrative and discourse, and each ending with a similar transition formula, "When Jesus completed these words, he went…."1 The fifth and last book is contained in 19:2 through 25:46, but the Gospel does not end here. The remaining chapters 26-28, which narrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, shatter the five-book design.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is found towards the end of the narrative of Book IV. It not only climaxes Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and especially his training of his disciples for future ministry; it offers the reader a glimpse of the final outcome of Jesus’ career and by inference the identical glory that awaits his disciples. The incident is introduced by a significant time reference, "And after six days…." Jesus’ transfiguration will occur on the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath. It is a symbolic representation not only of his own consummation but of the culminating Sabbath of history, that time in the future when Jesus, as the founder of a New Humanity—that is the meaning of the christological designation, "the Son of Man," which Matthew employs often—will be transfigured with all the members of his New Israel.

Jesus leads Peter, James and John "into a high mountain, by themselves." These three disciples did not form an inner circle among the larger group of twelve male disciples who in the gospel tradition represented the patriarchs of the New Israel.

Historically speaking, they are present because this unit of tradition probably originated in the early Jerusalem church when they, according to Galatians 2:9, constituted the leadership of the Mother Church. Once again a mountain is the site of this incident. It is another architectonic center or navel of the earth. But here the mountain is not preceded by a definite article. Within the narrative world of Matthew’s gospel it poses a contrast to "a very high mountain" of the wilderness of Judea (4:8) on which Jesus was tempted to worship Satan in order to receive "all the kingdoms of the world." The kingdoms of the world, however, will enter into a new moral order of justice and peace, not by worshipping Satan, but by following Jesus into the reign of God that his death and resurrection constitute. The transfiguration "on a high mountain" in Galilee adumbrates Jesus’ apotheosis by his resurrection from the dead and with it the reign of God that he will receive as a result of his co-enthronement with God, according to his testimony at his trial before the Sanhedrin (26:64).

In place of Mark’s description of Jesus’ metamorphosis, "And his garments became very shining white such as a bleacher on earth is unable to whiten," Matthew has substituted the language of an apocalyptic theophany, "His face shone as the sun and his garments became as white as the light." In this transformation Jesus is being disclosed to his disciples as the Son of God! Moses and Elijah, the Old Testament representatives of the Law and the Prophets, both of whom are associated with the Old Testament architectonic center of Mount Sinai, suddenly appear and Jesus begins to give them an audience, "They were seen speaking with him." The content of their dialogue is not revealed, but the sight of the three engaged in discourse evokes from Peter the christological identification of Jesus as the last prophet of history. He must be ranked with Moses and Elijah. He is the prophet Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15; he must be the final prophet of the old moral order. In contrast to Mark’s version of this incident, Peter expresses his willingness to construct three tabernacles, but only "if you wish." Matthew has deleted Mark’s comment on Peter’s ignorance and fear. His proposal, however, is embarrassingly interrupted by the heavenly voice speaking out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son in whom I began to take pleasure. Keep on listening to him!" The significance of Jesus’ metamorphosis is validated by God. Jesus is more than a new Moses! He is more than the final prophet of the old moral order! As God’s Son he is superior to both representatives of the Old Testament. He is God’s agent and surrogate who inaugurates the reign of God! In a reaction typical of theophanies the disciples fall on their faces in great fear. Jesus reaches out to them with a calming and reassuring touch, bidding them to "Be raised up and stop being afraid!" The first of his two imperatives employs the resurrection verb, egeirô, and could also be rendered as "Be resurrected." In the light of their experience on this very high mountain the disciples are to begin to participate in the destiny which this transfiguration foreshadows. By following Jesus into death and resurrection and engaging in the work that he has inaugurated, namely the reign of God, they will eventually have a share in the reality of his apotheosis that this metamorphosis anticipates. As Jesus states at the end of his interpretation of his parable of the wheat and the darnels in 13:43, "Then the righteous will shine as the sun in the reign of their Father."

The epiphany of the transfiguration, as Jesus instructs his disciples, is not to be communicated to anyone until after the "Son of Man" has been resurrected from the dead. That is the time when the "Son of Man," or the New Human Being, will come into his reign, but a reign that he will share with his disciples. Jesus’ transfiguration is an eschatological anticipation of the new creation that he will inaugurate after his death and its attendant dissolution of the old creation and its history. Matthew 27:52-53 bears witness to this cataclysmic event, "And the earth was shaken and the rocks were split apart." At the death of Jesus the old creation collapses into primordial chaos in fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy. A new creation is constituted as the Old Testament saints are resurrected: "The tombs were opened and many bodies of the holy ones being asleep were resurrected (egeirô)." The long awaited new creation dawns but is not established until Jesus leads these resurrected saints out of their tombs on Easter morning (27:53). At the Great Commissioning of 28:16-20, Jesus joins the eleven disciples who have encountered him on the mountain in Galilee, and by attaching himself to them as they go forth to fulfill his final command, he becomes the twelfth and thereby establishes a New Israel. He not only shares with them "All authority in heaven and on earth," but he incorporates them into his divine I AM. As the Greek word order of 28:20 reads, "See, I with you AM even to the consummation of the age."

1. See 7:28-29, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1 and 26:1. The last of these transition formulas contains the added word, "all," indicating that the end of Jesus’ teaching, and indeed the five books of narrative and discourse, have been concluded.

See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street.

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