The Sermon on the Mount
The sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel contains a portion of what has been called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. In that chapter there are three verses in which Jesus speaks of praying, fasting and almsgiving in secret. So far, so good. The King James translation, however, adds a word to the end of these verses. That word is ‘openly’. The formula in which the word appears can be represented by verse 4; “…and thy Father which seest in secret shall reward thee openly.“
Modern translations do not contain the word ‘openly’. In fact the earliest manuscripts, from the second, third and fourth centuries upon which modern translations are based, do not contain the word openly. it was added at a later date. Why?
I believe it has something to do with the perpetual need to resolve the tension between hiddenness and openness in the Christian life. Consider this. Our society was profoundly shaped by what has been termed the ‘ Protestant ethic’. The Protestant ethic states simply, to use Matthew’s words, if I pray, give alms and fast (as sincere acts of Christian piety) I will be rewarded with prosperity. Therefore you can tell who the serious Christians are by how prosperous their lives are. This is simple but it makes the point. God openly rewards the sincerely pious. This permeates the churches like ink in the water. It’s everywhere.
But a careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 in Matthew) reveals that openness and hiddenness are in constant tension. And this tension is reflective of the very nature of the Incarnation. Jesus was visible. He walked and talked, ate lunch, did miracles and so forth. Some saw Him and confessed, ‘He is the Son of God!” Others took a look and dismissed Him as another cheap street magician. The divine presence was not obvious.
So in the sacraments we have very visible elements; water, bread and wine. You can feel them, touch them and taste them. But hidden within them are the Holy Spirit, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And if you talk about the sacraments as invisible you’ve missed it. At the same time if you talk about the sacraments as obviously proving the presence of God you’ve also missed it.
What all this means for me is that the Christian has no reason to expect that our living of the Christian life is going to be any more obvious than was Jesus’ own life. For the world is not going to look at the Church and exclaim, ‘My you are so absolutely gorgeous, I must sign up. Count me in.’ Among the many implications of this awareness is one that stands apart. If the Church is going to bear witness to the faith, then it must speak the name of Jesus Christ and tell the story of what He has done for a sinful world. Attempts to resolve the tension within the Christian life only result in taking the focus off Jesus and placing it on ourselves. This we cannot and must not do.
“May the peace of god that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”