Lately, much of the prooftexting we encounter comes from those critical of conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist Christians.
And one of the latest objects of such prooftexting is St. Tim Tebow. His sin is Tebowing: kneeling in prayer on CBS and Fox.
As an egregious case in point, we quote from a recent letter to the editor in WSJ:
The problem for many, especially those having more deep understanding of Scripture, is that they see the public display of religious beliefs as both anti-Biblical and anti-Christian . . . Jesus was clear in his condemnation of public religiosity. For example, in Matthew 6:5, Jesus says (King James Version), "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." Does that not make clear the master's view of the public display of religiosity?
Um, actually sir, whom we will not name as you are a private citizen, though your name and city will be viewed by far more who haven't read this blog than by those who have, this verse does not make the master's view as clear as that.
For in the same discourse the master says,
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16 ESV).
So does Christ demand public or private religiosity? The paradoxical clash of these texts has been cited by no less than Sinclair Lewis in his celebrated anti-revivalist potboiler Elmer Gantry as an example of the Bible's self-contradiction. But it better demonstrates how approaching the Bible with an agenda different from the Bible's is a sure way to misunderstand it.
That is, our distinction between public and private as an issue of religiosity has more to do with Enlightenment views on the limits of religious truth claims than as part of Jesus' teaching. Was Jesus trying to keep people from offending others' religious sensibilities by confining devotional activity to the private sphere? Nothing suggests that such a question was close to his agenda, least of all the contents of the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety.
So what was up? Approximately summarized, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount insists that the righteousness of God's kingdom as he was inaugurating it was at once humble, sincere, mission focused, and offensive.
For the first two characteristics: righteousness is humble because it is based in one's own receipt of God's grace. Those who are blessed in God's kingdom are weak and lowly. So there's no point in trying to look better than others.
Likewise, the kingdom is God's kingdom, formed by his action and having him as sovereign. He sees what others don't. So there's no point in trying to look better than others in front of others. That's the natural outcome of acknowledging that God is king and I'm a weakling who needs mercy from God, so why would I care about looking better than other sinners?
So no acting like the righteousness-for-social-status folk. Real righteousness exceeds theirs. The hackneyed statement is that God is the only audience, though it wasn't hackneyed when Kierkegaard said it.
Yet Jesus says that righteousness is still mission-focused and so outward-looking. God is taking back his world, and the subjects of his kingdom are his means of doing that. They are salt. They are light. They will look different in public than other folk. Together they constitute a shining city on a hill, beckoning those around to join them. When their light shines, God gets glorified.
Which isn't automatic. They get persecuted, for the sake of the very righteousness that the Sermon refocuses, which is to say for Jesus' sake. There's no taking the offense out of the gospel, and it's no use to try to aim the offense to hit only the people we don't like, like rich folks or religious folks or secular-humanistic folks or "tolerant" folks.
And in all that, righteousness doesn't judge. It looks first to self, where the log in the eye must be self-removed by God's grace. But then righteousness helps remove the speck in the sibling's eye. It's about taking the world back, one eye at a time.
What does Jesus' Sermon say about St. Tim? Well, he could be shining a salty light, kneeling in humility, or he could be seeking the praise of men. Or both: people now and then admit to mixed motives. Some cry, "Lord, Lord," but don't do what the Lord says. The Lord, Tebow's judge, knows.
But Tebow didn't ipso facto break a dominical rule by taking a knee. Jesus didn't come simply to establish the definitive boundaries of religious observance. Like doing that would require a cross.
Note to all who want to discuss the Bible in public: don't start your discourse by claiming to have a "more deep" [sic] understanding of Scripture." But if you do, ask for mercy. Logs and specks: we've all got 'em.