Whose Desire is Going to Run Us? Matthew 6:1-18

Left hands

We All Desire Another’s Desire

Like many kids growing up, I worked hard to gain the approval of my parents, teachers, friends and pastors.

One year in college when I ran for class president, I did it on a whim. I thought it would be funny to see if I could win (real noble cause). My hair was pretty big and bushy back then so I kind of stood out like a sore thumb with my bushy, curly hair. For my campaign slogans I hand drew pictures of a smiley face with curly hair that said “Give the Curly Head a Try” and I made flyers in a kind of ransom style that promised to withhold Dino Nuggets for ransom – a favorite in the cafeteria – unless I was delivered a victory. I even had one of my friends run up on stage after the college president spoke during a school assembly and yes into the microphone – “Vote for Wess Daniels class president!” He then ran off before he was caught.

 And yes, I won and was class president for two years. I learned how to feed into certain desires of my friends and classmates, and they delivered back to me the reward I wanted –  a victory in the election despite the fact that I may not have been the best candidate for it.

Wanting approval is pretty much a universal so far as I can tell. We all know we are wanted and loved. We all want to be recognized and known by another. Most of us would enjoy winning an election or a popularity contest if we could.

But what is approval and how does it shape us?

Approval is wanting to be desired by another. It is wanting to fit into the likes and the preferences that others and society say are acceptable. So even in my trying to be different I was allowing myself to be formed by the desires of others. There are many ways we use our own desires to reinforce them in others.

Think about childhood prayer. Things kids think of. And parent’s more noble things! They take all this in and learn that their  “smelly little desires [are useless], and he has been taught to despise them and instead to want much more “noble” things, things that will make him stand tall in the world of his parents.”

We so rarely learn to voice what is most true and authentic to us. And this is because, as James Alison says:

“We desire according to the desire of the other.”

To say that “We desire according to the desire of the other” is to say that we are socialized into desire out of a deep need for approval. If we desire what our mom or dad, or lover, or teacher, or pastor, desires we can get approval.

[ILL. Vending Machine – Voices in your head. What you actually want? M&Ms or is that just bc your spouse wouldn’t want you get them is she was there?]

Just ask yourself this: what do I really desire? And begin following back how the answer to that – if you can come up with one – is connected to so many other things.

Prayer and Desire

[Slide] This brings us to Jesus’ teaching on prayer. What does desire and approval have to do with this text?

One tendency is to read this as though Jesus is saying stay away from all ritual, all liturgy, any kind of outward expression of “religion.” When we read it this way we are making a contrast between the outward and the inward and saying that Jesus prefers  inward faith over the outward.

But this imposes our own cultural preferences upon Jesus.

Just last week we read a passage this very same sermon in which Jesus was very much concerned about the outward and what we do with our bodies. For Jesus, the outward is as important as inward. The only way we can even begin to imagine turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving up everything to the person who takes you for your last penny is if faith has something very much to do with our whole bodies.

And as a Jew,  Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting were essential practices to Jesus. He and his disciples are seen throughout the gospels participating in these practices, and in fact later in this passage Jesus teaches his disciples “the Lord’s Prayer,” which he actually intends them to pray regularly so that the language and values embedded within it becomes part of what shapes them as a community.

I don’t think Jesus is saying rejecting the outward in favor of the inward as though he’s saying, “it’s okay to be spiritual but not religious.” I don’t think that’s what he’s doing at all.

So what is he saying? One commentator says it,

“Jesus’ quarrel is not with doing things like prayer, almsgiving and fasting, he assumes that will happen, but he is concerned with how they are being done (RT France).

This is why he challenges the hypocrites, a word that means “actor,” he is saying “stop putting on a show to gain approval from others” you’re trying to get approval from the wrong crowd. And they do get their reward – don’t read this as Jesus saying they will go to hell, that’s not it at all, instead what he’s saying is that they will indeed get the reward they are seeking: approval from others.

[Ill] It’s like my being class president. I was one of the hypocrites because I realized that I got my reward, which came in the form of having to go to all these meetings that I wasn’t really interested in and I did really know what I was doing because I had no prior training or experience. So I was kind of like the guy who won a popularity contest only later to learn that I wasn’t really popular at all, but got a job many people didn’t want for good reason.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is in exact reverse of what we are taught about desire in our world.  Instead of being formed by the desires of another so that we might find approval, Jesus shows us that prayer itself can be a way of unhooking us from the being formed by the desires of others, and resocialize us into the desires “Our Father Who is in the Heavens.”

True prayer is about a transformative experience in which our very wants and desires change, it is not a vehicle for getting whatever we want.

So – Jesus wants us to give alms in a way that is not about keeping track of our generosity, but instead to desire to have the kind of generosity that God our Father shows us. The only way we can do this is if we learn how to practice generosity in a way that is not constantly about seeking the approval and attention of others.

I think Jesus might be asking something like this:

“If you remember exactly how many times you have given to another ‘who didn’t deserve it’ and you have keep careful records and remain very calculated in all your gifts how generous is that really?”

So how do we, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hide our righteousness not so much from others or from God but from ourselves (158)? So that we may remain focused on following and being shaped by the desires that Jesus wants for us?

Moving into the Storeroom

Jesus gives us an image of the storeroom.

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6 NRSV)

It is easy to read this as Jesus saying, “Go into your bedroom to pray” but the greek word here ταμειον more accurately means pantry, storeroom or larder. During Jesus’ time these was a special room in every home that was very much like a pantry today, totally cut off from the outside world. No windows and typically in a place in the house where the temperatures were least likely to fluctuate. It was a space that, before refrigeration, could help to preserve food longer.

I believe Jesus is saying something like,

“go into your pantry and cut yourself off from exposure to the desires of others. Unhook yourself from the constant need to find approval in your public persona, in your role at work, in the family, at church, in society. And the more you do this the more you will be shot through with the desires of your Father who will meet you in secret. And then will your true self begin to emerge like a sprout budding from a seed that has been broken open.”

James Alison puts it this way:

He is saying: “You are addicted to being who you are in the eyes of your adoring public, or your [hating] public, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in just the same dangerous way. So, go into a place where you are forcibly in detox from the regard of those who give you identity so that your Father, who alone is not part of that give and take, can have a chance to call your identity into being.”

And I like how Parker Palmer puts it:

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen from the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the stands by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life  (Let Your Life Speak 4).

How do we find a place where the desires of others – whether they are positive or negative, whether they are spouses or children, job, church or society – how do we find a place in which we can begin this detox so that our own authentic self can begin to arise in connection with the desires of God?

In true prayer, we can be reformed so that we can begin to untangle where our true identity is in God and what are the authentic desires of our heart.

Q: So what is your spiritual storeroom? How can you do to unhook yourself from the constant need to find approval, how can spiritual practices such as prayer, almsgiving and fasting become for your a way to detox and allow God to call your true identity into being rather than being methods that build us up into the approval of others? What needs to change so that my desires become God’s desires?

You can listen to the audio version of this on Camas Friends webpage.

Flickr credit: Herbet.