Sermon on the Mount – Chapter 6 – Acts of Piety

Chapter six covers two important themes that are still very much alive today. First, Jesus discusses three acts of piety. Second, he discusses wealth and anxiety. I’ll discuss acts of piety in this post and wealth in another post later this week. 

Jesus begins by describing three acts of piety: giving alms, praying, and fasting. These are ways for the religiously devout to enact their faith. But they are also disciplines that strengthen our faith and orient it properly toward God and others. Many of us have negative associations with the term piety. Who wants to be called pious? It suggests a prim and proper, rigid self-righteousness. It doesn’t sound at all like something Jesus, that “drunkard and glutton” would approve of.

One Reformed theologian, James Gustafson, has rescued this term for me. He describes piety as “a persistent disposition of reverence, awe, and respect.” Now that I can live with! An act of piety, then, trains us in reverence, awe, and respect. The disciplines of piety orient us toward our world, our neighbor, and our God in a way that makes us eager to act with compassion, to be bowled over by beauty, and to respect each other in our differences.

Even in Jesus’ own time, there seemed to be a temptation for those practicing their piety to become self-righteously pious, to be showy about their devotion, and so Jesus offers instruction in how to engage in these disciplines so that they make us pious — not pietistic! 

Look carefully at 6:2-4. What does he say about giving alms? What does this suggest about our own practices? 

In verses 5 through 15, Jesus discusses prayer. What does he say about public prayer? I wonder what this might mean for practices like praying before a meal in restaurants. I love the critique of Gentile prayers that “heap up empty phrases” and wish Jesus had gone on to say “leave a little silence in your prayers for heaven’s sake!” 

Look carefully at the Lord’s Prayer. Pay attention to the structure. It begins with an invocation, with reverence to God, and then moves into petitions. What does Jesus ask for? Look carefully at the petition “your kingdom come.” What will earth look like when God’s kingdom is complete? Think about having enough bread and being free from debt as conditions of the reign of God. 

What does Jesus say about fasting? See a pattern with what he said about alms and prayer? What does that suggest about how Jesus understands piety? Now, think about fasting as an act of piety. How might it help to reorient us with “reverence, awe, and respect”? What, how, and with whom we eat communicates fundamental values. What do our food practices say about what we revere and who we respect? 

Can you think of any other acts of piety that the contemporary Christians might undertake and how Jesus might interpret them?

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