I saw this poster recently on Facebook and it has some interesting things to say. Some I would agree with, others I would say are shots in the dark and an attempt to paint Jesus in the image of a modern Western, well-educated, culturally relative liberal. In short, its just another way of creating God in one’s own image – another name for idolatry.
Now I’m not going to unpick that poster concept by concept, but what did leap out at me was probably one of the less incendiary comments (in hard secular Australia at least), and that is Jesus was anti-public prayer (Matthew 6:5). It’s a cute little dig at the pro-prayer movement in public schools and institutions in the USA (and to a lesser extent among some in Australia). And to be honest I would think that Jesus would look around at the modern western culture and its rejection of God and say “Yeah, don’t cast your pearls before swine!” I think he would be anti-public prayer in our context simply because at its best it’s a sop to a Christian culture that probably never existed in this country.
But the deeper question, and the one that perhaps undermines the spirit of the poster, is why Jesus was anti-public prayer in Matthew 6. Because what Matthew 6 shows most clearly is that Jesus is the poster boy of neither the left nor the right. Sure he got pinned up on Easter Friday, but that’s because he was nobody’s pin up boy. And why is that? What makes him such a threat to everyone who would wish to align him with their side?
For that we would need to look at Matthew 6 in context. And what we find is not that Jesus was anti-public prayer per se, but that he was totally opposed to peoples’ attempts to boost their own image in front of other people by employing habits and performing tasks that would gain them kudos from their culture – and that, unfortunately, draws us all into the problem. Hence in a culture that valued prayer – a lot – public prayer was being used not as a way of shoving religion in people’s faces who were not religious, but a way to look impressive to others. Indeed it is not just public prayer that Jesus has a beef with, but public fasting (nothing on the poster about that), and public support for the poor (6:1-4). This triad of pious acts were being used to gain the approval of the watching world, not attempts to impose unwelcome beliefs and practices on others.
So what is the primary problem Jesus identifies in Matthew 6? How does he word it?
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
At a popular level “the hypocrite” or the Pharisee (though the Pharisee is not specifically mentioned in the passage) is often viewed as the hardliner who, whilst being tight on all of the rules, is at heart inconsistent and unloving. They are harsh with others and push their own agenda about what is right and wrong. But that is clearly not what Jesus is getting at here. Above all else the hypocritical religious person has this one problem: They crave the approval of other people above anything else – they are people pleasers, not God-pleasers. Contrary to what we assume about such people in Matthew 6, they are not contrarian – if anything they are the complete opposite – shifting with the wind, assessing what will get them approval and then doing that. In Jesus’ day that just so happened to be religious devotion.
The big question is what is the equivalent in our day? What does our culture consider to be “righteousness”? I can tell you one thing, it is not religious devotion! In Australian culture today religious devotion is a fast-track to people heaping opprobrium on you not praise, suspicion not approval.
So what is the public place we “practice righteousness before other people”? Well, there’s always Facebook for a start! Practicing our public piety – things that will gain approval in the wider culture – has never been easier. So if you want to see what it looks like to practice piety before others, to seek the approval of others, trawl through the status updates and “likes” on Facebook or check out what is trending on The Project.
Which brings me back to the poster above (we were going to get there eventually). At its core this poster is saying this: “Jesus and I are on the same page”. It falls way short of understanding Jesus at all because the author does not identify themselves as part of the problem. They simply place their template of likes/dislikes over the top of Jesus – and voila, perfect match! It’s saying “I’m like this (insert political/social perspective here) and hey will you look at that, so is Jesus!” It’s a classic example of having our reward by assuming we are on the inside running with what is right and true. It’s the very opposite of Easter, which exposes our self-righteousness for what it is – an attempt to bypass the cross and how it throws down the gauntlet at the feet of our desire for the approval of others rather than the approval of God. Jesus may have been a bunch of things on that poster, and others he certainly was not. What he was though – and still is – was a direct challenge to the things fallen human culture craves more than anything else. And lest you think I am taking a stand on the “right” (given how many of the issues on the poster are central to the culture -wars), it would be just as easy to create a poster that says pretty much the opposite and claim that’s what Jesus was about, that that’s what he would approve of. So, in the spirit of being neither left nor right, let’s leave the last word to Jesus in a scathing rejection of the Pharisees and their love of money:
“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
No wonder we pinned up the poster boy.