NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 9: Matthew 6-7

You recognize a tree by the kind of fruit it produces. My picture, from the Kidron Valley.
You recognize a tree by the kind of fruit it produces. My picture, from the Kidron Valley.

In keeping with Jesus’ style of connecting seemingly-unconnected bits, I’m going to offer some short bits of disparate commentary today as we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6-7.

  • how do we reconcile “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Mat 5:16) on the one hand, and “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Mat 6:1 ESV)? Matthew goes on to say “give in secret” (v. 3-4), “pray in secret” (v. 5-6), “fast in secret” (17-18),
  • The  KJV’s “vain repetitions” in v. 7 represents a translation from one Greek word meaning “to use the same words again and again, to speak without thinking.” Frankly, I think many LDS, including me, often pray without thinking, and we make use of stock “insider” phrases to do so. With public prayer especially, we think less about the content, and more about the form, because people are listening! Form probably matters to some degree, but content much much more. Jesus goes on to model prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer

We sang a version of The Lord’s Prayer when I was in Jerusalem. Although from LeRoy Robertson’s Book of Mormon Oratorio (PDF link for background), the text of this song actually follows the KJV instead of the Book of Mormon, where there are differences.

  • 6:13 “deliver us from evil” should be read “deliver us from the evil one.” In other words, this is not a generic request, but a very specific one.
  • The final lines of the prayer echo 1 Chronicles 29:11, praising God with a doxology.
    • “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. “(Mat 6:13 KJV)
    • “Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all. “(1Ch 29:11 KJV)

Some 20+ times in  Matthew, Mark, and Luke (though never John), Jesus refers to hypocrites. In today’s reading, the KJV reads that way in Matt 6:5, 16, and 7:5. What does he mean? The “hypo” tells us it’s a transliteration of a Greek word, and NT Wright consistently translates it as “play-actors,” e.g. “When you fast, don’t be gloomy like the play-actors. They make their faces quite unrecognizable, so that everyone can see they’re fasting.” And indeed, this seems to be a good translation. A hypokrites (pronounced hoop-oh-krit-ace) was someone playing a role, pretending to be what they’re not, a play actor. Richard Draper as a good paper on it here. In the next chapter, Jesus will focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were hard-liners in terms of orthopraxy. Says Wright,

Though we know from history, and from the New Testament itself, that there were many scribes and Pharisees who were genuinely and humbly pious people, the tendency of hard-line pressure-groups—which is what the Pharisees basically were—is always to create a moral climate in which everybody looks at everybody else to see if they are keeping their standards up….

Jesus warns against all such ‘judgment’. He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have high standards of behaviour for ourselves and our world, but that the temptation to look down on each other for moral failures is itself a temptation to play God. And, since we aren’t God, that means it’s a temptation to play a part, to act, to be a ‘hypocrite’ (which literally means a playactor, one who wears a mask as a disguise)…. Judgment will bounce back on them, the measuring-stick they use for others will be lined up against them, and, while they patronizingly try to sort out other people’s problems, their own will loom so large that they won’t be able to see straight. Jesus, we should note, doesn’t rule out the possibility that some people will eventually be able to help others to take specks of dust out of their eyes. He isn’t saying that there is no such thing as public morality. But he is warning that the very people who seem most eager to tell others what to do (or more likely what not to do) are the people who should take a long look in the mirror before they begin.

It’s not hard to see an LDS application there. We have high standards that are often visible, and that kind of pressure and social judgment makes us want to appear as good as we possibly can… even if we have little intention or make little effort to actually be that way.

Jesus goes on to tell his listeners not to worry about food or clothing. Again, I like NT Wright’s commentary here.

When [Jesus] urged them to make God their priority, it’s important to realize which God he’s talking about. He’s not talking about a god who is distant from the world, who doesn’t care about beauty and life and food and clothes. He’s talking about the creator himself, who has filled the world with wonderful and mysterious things, full of beauty and energy and excitement, and who wants his human creatures above all to trust him and love him and receive their own beauty, energy and excitement from him.

So when Jesus tells us not to worry about what to eat, or drink, or wear, he doesn’t mean that these things don’t matter. He doesn’t mean that we should prefer (as some teachers have suggested) to eat and drink as little as possible, and to wear the most ragged and disreputable clothes, just to show that we despise such things. Far from it! Jesus liked a party as much as anyone, and when he died the soldiers so admired his tunic that they threw dice for it rather than tearing it up. But the point was again priorities. Put the world first, and you’ll find it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.

Nor does Jesus mean, of course, that we should not plant seeds and reap harvests, or that we should not work at weaving and spinning to make clothes. Rather, we should do these things with joy, because our God, our father, is the creator of all and wants to feed and clothe us—not gloomily, as though God were a mean tyrant who was out to get us and make life difficult for us. Of course, because we live in a world filled with anxiety, it’s easy to let it rub off on us. But the underlying principles of the whole Sermon on the Mount come together at this point in a huge but exhilarating challenge. God’s kingdom, and the way of life that goes with it; the ‘righteousness’, or covenant behaviour, the way of life, that marks out God’s people; these are the things you should aim at. Then you’ll find that food, drink and clothing look after themselves.

In 7:6, Jesus says, “don’t give holy things to dogs or pearls before swine, or they’ll trample them underfoot and then attack you.” This is not because dogs/pigs are evil or bad, but because they can’t recognize the value of pearls when they see them. Give your iPhone to a 8-month old, and she’ll try to eat it.

In 7:12, Jesus gives us what’s commonly become known as The Golden Rule. This, as it turns out, is not at all unique to him. It has precursors in the Old Testament, echoes in Judaism, and parallels in other world religions. Here’s an article on it from the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Further Reading

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