We’ve been following Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, learning about 6 sinful habits universal to all people that sabotage love and good will. By gradually “gouging” them out and incorporating 6 new habits, a more loving heart, mind, behavior, and relationships become the new normal.
In Bible-speak, it’s called repentance. It’s a cumulative process, not a one-time thing, which requires intention and practice, or “abiding in me,” as Jesus put it.
We’ve reviewed 4 of the 6 sinful habits so far: willful anger/contempt, spiritual adultery/divorce from God/obsessing over others, swearing/insistence, and score-keeping/payback. The corresponding new habits are: mercy (Step 1), keeping our eyes to ourselves (Step 2), letting Yes be yes and No be no (Step 3), and embracing a gracious, debt-free mentality (Step 4).
Like building a house, each step ties to the previous ones and presumes they’re in place. The Sermon isn’t random; it’s a brilliant, divinely planned strategy to make good will easier and smarter, not harder.
So the 5th destructive habit is worry over outer appearance, i.e., image and reputation, getting notice and applause, trying to impress. At this stage of spiritual re-formation, people who aren’t habitually angry, aren’t obsessed with everyone else’s faults, have no need to swear to manipulate opinions, and can spiritually afford debt-free thinking won’t find this too difficult. They’ve already substantially overcome the underlying evils that cause it.
This one is quite lengthy. The entire chapter of Matthew 6 is devoted to outer appearance, so I’ll hit the highlights here and encourage you to read all 34 verses on your own:
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be noticed by them. If you do, you’ll have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they’ve received their reward in full.” (Mat. 6:1-2)
Verses 5-18 bring similar cautions for when you pray and when you fast. Jesus hasn’t outlawed public displays of goodness, of course. (The Lord’s Prayer appears here.) It’s about doing them specifically to look good—another way to manipulate people. If they applaud, you will have received exactly the reward you seek. But it’ll enslave you to a hoop-jumping life-style that leaves you at the mercy of everyone else’s opinions.
Verses19-23 speak of storing up treasures in heaven—that is, God’s system of community, power, and joy, even in an earthly setting, and for which we’re designed. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be” refers to what we hold near and dear, good or bad.
Jesus here elaborates on Step 2’s adulterous spiritual “eyes” and a haughty view of rightness, which conflicts with a kingdom kind of life. He doesn’t mean that physical things are worthless. He does mean that what you cherish is what you’ll hold on to and invest in, whether it’s a loud, contemptuous spirit or a more relaxed, loving spirit. Then he continues:
Therefore I tell you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or drink; or about what you’ll wear on your body. Isn’t life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? (v. 25)
So don’t worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For pagans chase after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these will be given to you as well.” (vv. 31-33)
Food For Thought
I think it’s significant that Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t worry whether you’ll eat or drink.” Jesus has great compassion for those who are literally starving or have inadequate clothing. Kingdom-lovers are some of God’s resources to help. They don’t do charity to look good or impress others. They do it because they’ve taken Jesus’ Sermon to heart and can be trusted to use their power to contribute to good.
There’s a difference between needing food for healthy nourishment and using it to boast rightness. First-century moral battles raged over “clean” and unclean food. Paul taught that although God gave laws about what is and isn’t the healthiest to eat, they’re subordinate to God’s Law of love.
Today, even non-religious people can equate food and drink with morality. Is red meat okay? Should we eat only chicken or fish, or skip meat altogether and go vegetarian? What should we drink? Some churches forbid caffeine and alcohol, causing all kinds of petty battles. On the other hand, many people order expensive wine or gourmet meals to impress others.
When we confuse health issues with moral issues, it becomes “okay” to judge others by what they eat. Some will even bully them for related appearance issues—too fat, too skinny, whatever. It creates and feeds yet another set of conditions for love while unconditional love starves to death.
Clothes Make the Man?
Dressing for success is a popular practice. But does a custom suit or designer dress determine your moral soundness? They’re not inherently immoral, but using clothes specifically to show off isn’t a good place to be. Kids can get so hung up over clothes that murder over a jacket has been common. “Killer outfit” takes on a whole new meaning when people live and die by what they wear.
Is it sinful for men to wear ponytails or earrings? Should women be allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short? What about green hair? Tattoos and body piercing? And, dear me, what should we wear to church? Our “Sunday best,” of course!
Who needs all the fuss and anxiety? Just as we can’t make one hair white or black by swearing, so Jesus reminds us here that we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worrying about image (v. 27). He didn’t need clinical studies to know that stress takes years off our lives.
Living well is what counts. What you put on your body is less important than what you put in your mind. Jesus’ idea of rightness is a classy, yet subtle spirit that has a strength all its own.
In verses 4, 6, and 18, Jesus offers his solution: let go of image, reputation, and peer pressure by routinely going into your “closet” when you pray, give, and fast. This is simply an idiom for a private, inner space with God. It builds intimacy and the sort of inner quiet that frees you from jumping through hoops to satisfy every neighbor’s idea of right-being.
For most people, going into their closets is a totally new habit because we’re taught exactly the opposite—to broadcast and “share” every aspect of our lives whether others want to hear it or not.
As Christians, we’re taught to trumpet our relationship with God to everyone we encounter. We’re told that our very souls depend on sharing Jesus, yet we can’t seem to do anything he says to do—love our neighbors, do good to enemies, etc. We talk about a personal relationship with God, but it’s noisy and crowded with people who deem whether you’re “right with God” or not. Intimacy dies and we wonder why He seems a stranger.
“Your Father, who sees what’s done in secret,” is your audience. It is He, not the world or the Church, who rewards you once you stop chasing the harlot. Developing this habit means discovering the blessedness of keeping some things to yourself. Like Mary, you treasure them in your heart instead. This pulls you out of the social vortex of engaging in arguments, insisting on having the last word, boasting, and blurting your every opinion like bullets into a crowd.
So, last week I suggested deliberately giving a big tip to a bad waiter as one small way to practice overcoming score-keeping mentality. This week, I’ll add that when you do this, you don’t announce, “You sucked, but that’s okay. I’m practicing on you.” Instead, with a knowing wink, you keep it just between you and God. He knows perfectly well what you’re up to and loves it!
Getting beyond the shallowness of the Pharisees—being righteous because people are watching—takes planning a new habit: what neighbors think of you is none of your business. That way, you can treat them less combatively despite what they say or do, whether anyone is watching or not. And your new, loving spirit will shine naturally, the ideal way to share Jesus.
Next week, the completion: Step 6