Thursday, February 20, 2020

Secret Righteousness in Plain View

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, is a text about keeping secrets.  Three times Matthew says, "And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."  Of course, what we are being commanded to keep secret is not something we are ashamed of, but rather something which we would most love others to see.  This text comes not far removed from another command of Jesus': "Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."  Clearly the difference is in who gets the glory.  This shall be the preacher's task to make clear.

(The following questions have been developed in order to make clear how the Word is functioning in any given text, a primary concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  In order to understand the rationale for these questions and to learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  We need only look at the form of the verbs in this text to know how the Word functions.  Nearly every verb is an imperative or a prohibition.  In short, these are commands, and as such they function as calls to obedience.  A call to obedience assumes that the call of faith has already been heard, and now the disciple is being instructed.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is almost no Law or Gospel in this text.  That is to say, there is nearly no word that either exposes our need for Christ, or one that proclaims what God has done in Christ.  The final verse is the sole exception to this, as Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When we hear this we know that our hearts expose our idolatry.

3.  With whom are you  identifying in the text?  Jesus is talking to his disciples here, and we, being his disciples, also receive this word directly.  Jesus is not talking to the world, but to those who claim to be amongst the faithful.  Jesus is talking to us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because of the absence of Law and Gospel here, there is little fodder for couplets. Returning to the final verse we might try these:  hearts astray/hearts forgiven; false treasures/true treasures.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is fascinating the multiple ways that the first verse of this pericope has been translated:  "Do not your alms before men" (KJV), "Beware of practicing your piety before men" (RSV), "Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men" (NEB), etc.  Part of this variation is due to the fact that the Greek text is also unsettled.  Most manuscripts use the word dikaiosynae, which is usually translated "righteousness", but a notable number of other manuscripts use the word eleemosynen, which is often translated "acts of compassion or mercy".  Given that the former choice seems, by scholars, to be the preferred one, we are left with an interesting command:  "Beware of doing righteousness..."  Of course, as we have pointed out, the motivation for this doing of good deeds is the whole issue.  According to ancient sources, an anonymous writer had this to say, "It is better to do nothing than to act to be seen." And "The very act of kindness...trumpets itself." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 124)  Augustine gets us to the heart of the matter:  "If someone does something with the intent of gaining earthly profit, that one's heart is upon the earth." (Ibid., p. 141)  Douglas Hare, in his contemporary commentary, says it this way:  "Giving, prayer, or fasting, if undertaken for the praise it will win from others, is basically irreligious..." (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 65)  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount gives us a strategy going forward:  "Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word.  But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ." (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 160)  There is our strategy:  cling solely to Christ!

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Chris Repp's 2018 analysis of this text is an inventive take on this call to obedience.  In the final step of the analysis, he shows how what Jesus is commanding is finally being worked out.  Meanwhile, the boondoggle of the Cross, has become the infrastructure of our salvation.  Check out the entire analysis at

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Cloudy Days on the Mountain

Exodus 24:12-18, the First Reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord in the Year of Mark, is a short reading amidst other more well known readings.  Preceding it is the account of  Moses and the seventy elders ascending the mountain where we read that "God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank." (24:11)  Following the reading, we have tabernacle instructions, but when the narrative picks up we have Aaron and Hur, the ones entrusted with leadership over Israel while Moses is on the mountain, agreeing to the making of a golden calf for Israel to worship, supposedly because the people have given up ever seeing Moses or his God again.  These stories are stories of God's presence and God's absence.  Our listeners will be familiar with both.  It will be the preacher's task to lift this up.

(The following questions are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which exegetes have at their disposal.  These particular questions have been developed to understand the function of the Word in a text, something important for Law and Gospel preachers.  If you would like to learn more about this method and Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The cloud functions as a symbol of both Law and Gospel here.  The cloud is a symbol of God's presence, so in that way it is a Gospel function.  We also hear God summoning Moses to receive the law and the commandments, an indication of God's care for the people, so that is also a Gospel function.  The cloud also has the effect of cloaking God in mystery and we are told that "the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire," so there is its Law function.  God is to be both trusted and feared; that is clear.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since Moses is being addressed in this text, we do well to take the place of Moses.  We are called by God to enter into the cloud.  We are called to stand before God and listen.  We are called to put our life in God's hands.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In the word to the elders we have a call to obedience.  It is a simple command:  "Wait here for us, until we come to you again."  As we know, these elders did not obey this command, but descended the mountain and ended up convincing Aaron and Hur to fashion a golden calf for them.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  I have suggested several ways that the cloud functions as a symbol of Law/Gospel.  Using those phrases we might suggest the following couplets:  hiddenness/openness; devouring fire/cleansing fire.

5.  Exegetical work:  The idea that the cloud is a symbol of God's presence has been noted by scholars for a long time.  We see this first in the Exodus story where "the Lord went in front of [Israel] in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night." (Exodus 13:21)  The JPS Torah Commentary translates cabod Yahweh (the glory of the Lord) as "The Presence of the Lord" in both  verse 16 and 17. (p. 154)  It is interesting to think about the presence of God being like a consuming or devouring fire.  Does that suggest that God's presence is continually cleansing us?  Something to ponder.  As far as Moses' willingness to enter the cloud, we have this from Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan:  "If anyone therefore desires to behold this image of God, he must love God so as to be loved by him, no longer as a servant but as a friend who observes his commandments, that he may enter the cloud where God is."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, III, p. 121)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Mark Marius does a nice job of sorting out Law and Gospel in his 2015 analysis, archived under the reference.  He calls the diagnosis, "God will see you... now", and the prognosis, "Now we see God."  He takes us to the mountain of Transfiguration where God truly reveals Godself, "This is my Son, listen to him," and shows how that cloud is the place of God's full revelation.  See the entire analysis at

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Heart for God

It is serendipitous that this year the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord falls near Valentine's Day, as the First Reading for this Sunday in the Year of Mark is Deuteronomy 30:15-20.  This passage is all about our heart:  What shall it be set upon?  What shall it turn  away from?  To which deity will we give our heart?  Moses is quite clear; our choice of lovers is a matter of life and death.  As preachers we will need to make this clear.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they follow a certain method which attempts to answer questions around how the Word functions, a primary concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are developed more fully in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is a clear choice given in this text, the choice between loving God and loving other gods.  It functions as the call to faith.  Much the same way that Jesus, in the Gospel of John, announced that those who follow him would find life abundant, so Moses here announces that those who love the Lord will find life, but those who turn from this Lord of life will find evil.  The Word, therefore functions as both promise and threat, both Law and Gospel.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the listeners, the people of Israel.  We are those to whom these assurances of blessing or curse are given.  We are urged to love the Lord, walk in his ways, and obey his commandments.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Though this passage has the appearance of a call to obedience, it is not one, because it is not a call to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  That will come later. This is a call to faith.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Unlike many texts, there are many couplets given right in this passage.  Some examples are:  death/life; adversity/prosperity; curses/blessings.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are a number of points at which Hebrew constructions grant us insight in this passage.  A good example is in verses 19c-20a, where we read, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him."  When we look at the Hebrew we see that the prefix attached to "loving, obeying, and holding" indicates manner or norm.  This means that here we have a description of the manner in which we "choose life."  We choose life by "loving, obeying, and holding fast" to God.  We do not choose life and then begin loving, obeying, and holding fast.  No, our choosing shows itself in whom our heart loves, to whom our heart listens, and to whom our heart clings.  It is all a matter of the heart.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Michael Hoy, in his analysis, does a nice job of lifting up the blessings and curses dichotomy here.  He goes back a few verses, reminding us of Moses' word that "this commandment is very near to you" (vs. 30:14), and proclaiming that the blessings are to be found in Christ.  See the entire analysis, archived under its reference at

Blessings on your proclamation!