I went to see Dad today and he’s definitely going downhill. I won’t go into details, but it’s clear to see that dementia is kicking in big time. They tell me that dementia sufferers plateau for a while, then hit a quick downslide to another plateau, and that is what appears to be happening. We now have to bring a good coffee in to him (for a War Generation bloke he is totally Gen X when it comes to coffee – Ed), as getting him out the door to a cafe, even though he lives near some excellent inner city ones, is now nigh on impossible.
It’s Fathers’ Day on Sunday and it struck me that just as I have stopped doing all of the domestic duties for my six year old boy, in that he is increasingly, and vociferously, becoming more independent, I am doing more and more for my Dad, who is increasingly, and silently, becoming more dependent. I know the aged-care staff will do all of the things that I am doing and with a smile, but when I am there it’s probably nice for him to have someone do something for him who is not paid to do so!
We’re looking at Matthew 6 over the coming weeks at Providence Church Midland, and having just finished Matthew 5, there’s a certain sense of relief as it’s a tough call, all those “But I say unto you” statements of Jesus. But just when you think you’re off the hook he starts his next series of statements with “Beware!” Having just finished with the words “Be perfect therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), you now get a warning not to be outwardly righteous in such a way as to garner human praise! Don Carson says this is Jesus’ way of saying “Be perfect, but be careful!”
And it has struck me, as I travel down to see my own father, that the temptation to big note what I do for him is always there because in our culture looking after your dad is not necessarily the norm. It would be very easy to be either proud of what I am doing, in that others approve of it, or resentful of what I am doing, because I am not getting the recognition I deserve and it takes a lot of my time and energy, etc etc. The reward of the approval of others is always sitting there, just behind you, just out of eyeshot, but definitely there, because you can sense its shadow.
But here’s the beauty of what Jesus does in Matthew 6: He breaks the link between reward and approval. Do you get that? The hypocrites who give/pray/fast in order to be seen by others are doing so because they are seeking the reward of approval from humans. And who is the human from whom people want most approval? Themselves! Jesus is focussing on those who do their acts of righteousness with one eye on others, and one eye on themselves. None of their gaze is Godward. Their heavenly Father is not actually on the agenda because they are not looking to him for reward.
But see what Jesus does in this chapter? He grounds the actions of his followers in the fact that they have approval already! God is their heavenly Father because of Jesus. The relationship is in place and secure before any actions take place. Hence the reward that Jesus speaks of seven times in this chapter cannot be the reward of approval from our heavenly Father.
We see this in some small way when our own child brings us a less than dextrously assembled gift from school. The approval our child has from us is not tied to the gift, but rather the gift has preciousness because of the child. If my son were particularly poor at glueing, cutting and pasting and colouring in, then I am hardly going to swap his Fathers’ Day effort for the better effort of some other child in his class. The gift I want to receive is the one made from my already approved of son, who made the gift not to curry favour with me, but because he has it already! And of course the astounding truth is that because of God’s approved Son – the Lord Jesus Christ – all of our works in the Lord are approved, not because of our goodness, but because of his goodness transferred to us.
So the idea of God as our heavenly Father who approves of us strikes us when we have little children. But all too often it can fade as they get older and we start becoming more transactional in our relationship with them. Dad’s dementia has given me the unexpected gift of approving of him not because he is capable, not because he is able to do much for me, never mind do anything for himself, but because he is my Dad! It’s not a transactional relationship.
And Jesus’s words are a liberating truth for my father as well. He has a heavenly Father who approves of him just as he is because of Jesus. Dad can no longer do anything, and certainly when it comes to the three acts of righteousness of the pious in Matthew 6, he comes up way short. He hasn’t got much to give, he does the odd prayer whilst his brain can stay unmuddled, and if he ever pushes the plate away at dinner, it’s not to fast but because he’s losing his appetite as dementia digs its heels in. He can’t evangelise. He can’t serve others. His whole life is now a list of “can’ts”. But he has approval from his heavenly Father nonetheless. And that’s more than enough for him this Fathers’ Day, even if it should be his last.