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Transformed Desires

Matthew 6:16-24

by Mike Bowling

What do you desire? Whatever it is, your desires determine in large measure what you become. This is true for each person and for every community. What we desire affects how we see the world around us, and desire drives where we put our energies and our resources.

However, our desires are complex. We desire significance and respect; we desire relationships and belonging; we desire security and safety; we desire a multitude of creature comforts. At various times, each person and each community will prioritize these desires in a different order, and how we prioritize our desires differently from others can lead to conflict.

After deconstructing a couple of the religious practices of his day (Matthew 6:1-8), Jesus gives an outline for seeking (desiring) the Kingdom in what we call the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). He follows the offering of a model prayer with a specific emphasis on the essential key to Kingdom life and community: a desire for reconciliation (forgiveness).

Matthew 6:16-24 introduces readers to a sampling of the rivals to Kingdom desires. Jesus is not concerned with the practice of fasting (vv.16-18); rather, he’s concerned with a desire “to be seen” fasting. Everyone wants to be respected, and a certain kind of significance is achieved when we are viewed as devout. Jesus saw the problem of appearing to be devoted to God (like those who offered long-winded public prayers) as a substitute for an actual desire for God’s kingdom. Prayer and fasting are essential practices for expressing to God our trust and desire for the will of God to come on earth, but it is a hypocrisy to use these practices as a means to establish our own reputation.

The desire for material or financial security can be directly contradictory to “give us this day our daily bread” if our actual trust is in “laying up for ourselves earthly treasures.” I will refrain here from a thorough justification and definition of comprehensive community development, but for readers of Wendell Berry, it is what he calls “the Great Economy” (which he identifies as the kingdom of God). When our concern is receiving and using well God’s superabundance for the common good, we are seeking or desiring the Kingdom. But when our desire is to establish our own security through stockpiling isolated and isolating wealth, we demonstrate a lack of devotion to God and too often build barriers between us and our neighbors. Just as folks miss the point Jesus is making about the appearance of fasting, it is easy to misunderstand the point Jesus is making about the management of “treasures” in vv. 19-21. The problem isn’t the management and judicious use of resources; it is the problem of greed...of “laying up for ourselves.” When Jesus speaks of the location of our treasures as an indication of the disposition of our “heart” in v.21, he is challenging his audience at the level of their desires.

Another way Jesus addresses the need for transformed desires was to compare the human eye to a lighted window which illuminates the whole body. But what if the window is darkened— then the whole body is shrouded in darkness. Desire is such a window— it is the prism through which we see the world: when shaped by Kingdom concerns, our whole person is transformed. However, when our desire is for the kingdom of self, the darkness within us will be overwhelming. Every day on the news we hear of monstrous expressions of such a darkness!

The transformation of desire requires a conversion. Either the material world is independent of any other influence or the material world exists under the dominion of One who is sovereign. If the material world is all there is, then human existence is at worst “the survival of the fittest,” and at best there is some human wisdom which recognizes the utility of human cooperation and collaboration. Jesus’ mission was and is the revelation of the way of being consistent with the way of the Creator. The way of an independent world is the way of Mammon. The accumulation of money and wealth (Mammon) is a dangerous path which can, and often does, lead away from simple trust in God’s provision, and may reduce others to a means to our own end. A desire for God’s kingdom assumes a sovereign Creator, thus the requirement of a conversion.

The significance of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) has been widely acclaimed as great wisdom, but the depth of its exploration of the human condition has been widely ignored. Jesus is drilling deep into why we act as we do. God cannot be the means to our own end; we are the means to God’s end. What a person desires depends on who we ultimately serve.

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