Treasuring What Matters Most - Part 1

What matters most to you? Is it how others see you? Or is it in doing what God sees?

Full Text: 

 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

            A few weeks ago I heard a story on the public radio program, “This American Life.”  It was a true story, called, “The Answer to the Riddle is Me.”  It was told by David McLean, a graduate student who got a Fulbright scholarship to study for a year in India .  He made his plans, started taking his anti-malarial medication, and packed his bags.  He got over there, found an apartment, and made a few friends.

Then one day in October, he woke up in the train station.  He wasn’t lying down on a bench, sleeping off a hangover.  He simply came to consciousness in the middle of the train station.  He could not remember who he was, or where he was, or why he was there.  His memory was wiped clean.  David was discovered by a tourist officer.  The officer assumed that he was like other young foreigners who come to India and get into the drug culture.  

McLean had lost his passport, but did have his wallet with his driver’s license.  He recognized the picture of himself, but not the name.  The tourist officer took him to a half-way house.  After several hours of trying, he remembered his parents’ phone number, the phone number they had always had.  He called them and recognized their voices.  Prompted by a woman at the half-way house, he apologized to them for what he had done, for how he had dishonored them, and he promised to do better.

After McLean started having psychotic episodes, he was transferred to a mental hospital.  They discovered that his nearly total memory loss came as an extreme side effect of the anti-malarial medication he was taking.  He stopped taking it, of course, but he still had no memory.

Over the course of the next few months, he returned to the states, stayed with his parents, looked at old photographs.  He had to break up with his new girlfriend because he simply could not remember who she was.  He returned to India hoping not to lose his Fulbright scholarship.  With time he recovered his memory with the exception of the year prior to his trip to India.

While he was still in the psychiatric ward, though, and still had no idea who he was, McLean said, “All I had to go on for my identity were the reactions of other people around me.  I assembled a working self out of the behavior of others.”  And I thought, “Isn’t that what we all do?”

It’s easy to see in babies, how babies discover who they are through the care that they receive from the mother and father, as they grow through their relationships with brothers and sisters and grandparents.  In early adolescence – around eighth grade – we are centered on our peers and their reactions to us.  But then, over the coming years, young people begin to develop a sense of who they are apart from others.

I don’t think we ever lose that sense of who we are in the eyes of others.  The positive side is that that is a way that we build relationships, we stay connected to each other.  The danger is in how much we think that this is who we really are.

It is even a danger with God.  In practicing our faith, we can build a “religious self” that is constructed out of how others see us, or how we want others to see us, or even how we want God to see us.  But Jesus says – Watch out!  Do not be like the hypocrites!  

Hypocrite is a term from Greek theatre.  It referred to the actors who would wear masks.  These masks served a dual purpose.  The first was to hide the real person behind the mask, so people would see only the character and not the actor.  The other purpose of the mask was to attract attention to itself with exaggerated characteristics and expressions.  In a large amphitheatre, where it might be difficult to see – thousands of years before technological innovation made camera close-ups possible! – this was very important.

As far as we can tell, Jesus was the one who took this theatrical term and brought it into the moral vocabulary of Western civilization.  While being a hypocrite in the dramatic theatre might be a good thing, it is not a good thing in the moral theatre – presenting a righteous face to the world, while hiding unrighteousness.  And it is not good in the spiritual theatre.  It creates a false self, a self that stands separate from God.  In other words, it offers the pretense of being tight with God, but covers a heart that is far from God.

Jesus is not teaching us that we should hide our good deeds.  In just the previous chapter, Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Good works are a good thing and it’s even good that other people see them.  But Jesus teaches us not to do such works “in order to be seen by others.”  If that is what we want, then that is what we will get.  But it is likely then that we will get nothing from God.  

Jesus again – as he does throughout the Sermon on the Mount – directs us to be aware of our inner intention and not our outer deeds.  The clearest expression of this – and the most difficult – is his instruction, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  This is not something we can do by our own effort.  We cannot say to our left hand, “OK, left hand, I want you to look the other way while I do this thing with my right hand don’t want you to know about.”  This will only serve to attract the attention of the left hand to the right hand.  So, though it is not an easy task, we must seek to become the kind of person who helps others quietly and unobtrusively, with little, if any, ego gratification.

Also with prayer – If we pray so that we will look good, holy and pious to others, we can do that and that’s what we’ll get.  But we’ll get nothing from God.  We need to make God the focus of our prayer.  Nor is prayer a matter of manipulation.  It’s not that if we just pray the right prayer or just pray in the right way, then we’ll get want we want.  No, prayer happens when we are completely honest and open with God, vulnerable with God, when we come to God just as we are.  Then good things will happen – even though they may not be what we initially want – because good things always happen with God.

And with fasting – the purpose of fasting is not to let people know how pious we are or how much effort we’re putting into our spiritual life.  It is to teach us what Moses taught and what Jesus knew – we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  Then we will truly be fed – at the very center of our being.

In all this, Jesus is teaching us to treasure what matters most – not things that will arise and pass away, but things that will last; not things that separate us from others, but things that will genuinely draw us closer to others; not things that will extend our own influence, but will draw us ever more into the realm of God’s effective influence.

Last Monday night, thanks to Netflix, I watched, “Up in the Air,” the 2009 movie starring George Clooney.  Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who jets all over the country firing people so their employers don’t have to do it.  Bingham loves his job, his life and his lifestyle.  He prides himself on traveling lightly and quickly.  He totes one small carry-on bag and a set of plastic cards that get him the fastest and best service wherever he goes.  He has a small one bedroom efficiency apartment in Omaha , where his business is headquartered.  But he is rarely there.  His goal is to accumulate 10 million frequent flyer miles, something only six others have achieved before him.

In addition, Bingham is a motivational speaker.  He speaks to groups of business people, many of them travelers, I imagine.  He carries a small backpack which he sets on the table next to him as he speaks.  He invites his listeners to imagine putting everything they own into this little backpack – from the small things in their dresser drawers to large things, like sofas – and then to imagine putting that backpack on their backs.  He invites them to consider the weight of all those things and what they might want to let go of to make their backpack lighter.

Later in the movie, we hear Ryan ask his listeners to put people into their backpacks – acquaintances, extended family, close loved ones.  How much does that backpack weigh now?  It is clear that Ryan Bingham has very little in his backpack and there is nothing that he would not jettison at a moment’s notice – including the people closest to him – if he felt it (or they) were slowing him down.

But in the course of the movie, Bingham becomes more aware of what he is missing.  He has been avoiding contact with his family.  Now he becomes reconnected with his family.  He has been avoiding any long term relationship and the commitment and intimacy that it entails.  Now he finds someone with whom he might try to build such a relationship.

The movie does not end the way we expect – and that is one of the strengths of the movie.  At the end, Ryan Bingham is back on the road, but he is not the same.  I believe he is traveling a slightly different road.  He still likes his job, but he is looking for something else out of life – something that is more valuable and longer lasting than 10 million frequent flyer miles.

What is it that matters most to you?  Is it the work that you do each day?  Is it the people you work with?  Is it where you live?  Is it the people you live with?  Is it in following the deeper yearnings of your heart for a greater life?

This is the life to which Jesus calls us.  It is a life of treasuring what matters most – not reputation, not the reward of what other people think – but treasuring an open, honest, very real relationship with God – a relationship in which we not only know who we are, but whose we are – a relationship of heart to heart.