I've been preparing material on Matthew 6 for preaching and home groups over the past couple of days. It's amazing - I suppose I shouldn't be surprised - but no matter how familiar texts like the sermon on the mount are, they always have a freshness, almost a strangeness when you come to preach and teach on them again.
We're in a series on the teaching sections - the so-called discourses - of Matthew, having started with the final 5 verses of the gospel where Jesus tells us to make disciples and teach them all that he's commanded. Matthew clearly thought the teaching sections were important because that's why he constructed his gospel the way he did.
I think it's quite likely that the gospel was used in some way as a discipleship manual for Matthew's circle of churches and probably quite quickly much further afield as people got wind of its existence. I'm not much persuaded that he wrote for a tiny community, still less that it's mainly a polemic against other takes on the story of Jesus, especially Paul's.
It seems to me that it's an open-hearted, pastorally-guided account of the life of the Christ with the aim of helping disciples grow and fulfil their calling to make other disciples through their lifestyle and conversation.
That being said, the sermon on the mount becomes an essential guide to the revolution Jesus invites us to be part of. And Matthew 6 is the essential guide to the spirituality of that revolution.
What struck me as I read it to preach it was the refrain about reward and still more strikingly the introduction that describes giving, praying and fasting as 'acts of righteousness'. We'd call them acts of devotion or spirituality. Jesus calls them acts of righteousness. He probably has in mind a contrast between his followers and the scribes and pharisees (who he spoken of in relation to this in 5:20).
But what's all this about rewards (6:1b, 4, 6, 18). Jesus can't be saying that our salvation is a reward for our piety because he's made it clear in the beatitudes that membership of the Kingdom community is a gift from God. The reward seems to be that as we give, pray and fast in the way Jesus outlines, we get closer to God, nearer to his heart that aches for our world, more drawn into his Kingdom and his revolution.
I was thinking of this when I met someone who's very serious about their devotional life which combines elements of Buddhist and Christian practice (with a emphasis on the former). As I spoke with this person I found myself marvelling at two things - the depth and seriousness of their practice (it cost them dearly in terms of time and commitment) and why I don't it replicated in many Christians.
We can be very casual about our piety, our devotional lives. Evangelicals in particular are prone to be spontaneous activists who don't have much time for reflection, let alone meditation. We tend to think that extempore praying is so much better than using set prayers and liturgies and hence we tend to repeat ourselves a bit and use God's name as a form of punctuation.
I wonder if this is why Jesus calls our piety 'acts of righteousness': he wants to stress how serious and essential it is that we go deep in these areas because without depth with God in secret our lives in the world be very shallow.