Sunday, January 29, 2023

Sermon: “Fatherly Advice”, Matthew 6:7-21 (January 29, 2023)


I’ve been thinking a lot this week about fatherly advice. It doesn’t have to be gendered, really; it can come from anyone. But the phrase itself evokes a very specific genre of guidance: usually given by an older mentor figure and coming from a place of genuine affection and care, it’s heartfelt advice meant to help someone live a better life. It’s parental wisdom offered with the best interests of its recipient at heart.

Some of the most enduring examples of “fatherly advice” in our culture (which we still quote today) can be found in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. In the middle of act 1, the character of Laertes is about to depart for school in France when his father, Polonius, takes it upon himself to offer his wisdom to his son as a parting gift. Some of the most famous maxims in the English language come from Polonius’ monologue, both paraphrased (for example, “The clothes make the man”) and directly quoted (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”). Polonius concludes his fatherly advice by bestowing what’s arguably his most famous and most meaningful adage – “Above all, to thine own self be true.” It’s truly impressive that these particular nuggets of wisdom have remained in our collective consciousness for over 400 years.

Those of you who are Shakespeare scholars will remember, however, that, while Polonius’ guidance is apparently sound (or at least extremely quotable), he’s not exactly the sage father-figure that his words might imply. (Those of you who prefer Disney to Shakespeare can instead picture Zazu, the character based partially on Polonius in “The Lion King’s” retelling of Hamlet.) Polonius (/Zazu) is pompous and self-important, not to mention an unapologetic brown-noser. If you read closely, you can see his personality reflected in the way he offers his fatherly advice.

It's all focused on how to project an image that’ll get you ahead in the world. Be friendly, but unoffensive. Listen to everyone, but keep your thoughts and words to yourself. Try to stay out of fights, but if you get in one, make sure you come across as an admirable opponent. Dress well, but not ostentatiously. (Incidentally, Zazu never said any of this, but I find it helpful to imagine Polonius speaking these words with his inflection and tone.) Finally, at the end of Polonius’ own version of “Ten Habits of Highly Effective People,” he exchanges his politician’s hat for his father’s hat at the last minute and dramatically implores Laertes to “stay true to [him]self no matter what!” You can tell what’s REALLY important to Polonius – looking good and sounding impressive – and whether he realizes it or not, that’s the wisdom that he wants to impart to his son.

You may be wondering at this point whether this is a sermon or an essay on what 16th century stage plays can teach us about parenting. Here’s the connection: we revere Jesus’ sermons in the gospels as sacred teachings, not to be questioned – and to be sure, they absolutely are. But if you think about it, his words could also fit the description of “fatherly advice”: he’s a mentor figure with our best interests at heart, offering wisdom that comes from a place of love to help us live better lives. What’s more, we could probably summarize Jesus’ advice in today’s scripture reading the same way that Polonius ends his – “To thine own self be true” – except that JESUS actually means it.

Jesus’ “fatherly advice” is to be authentic in faith. Don’t pray using flowery words meant to impress others; simply tell God what you need. Don’t pray for every single thing you can think of; just ask for what you really need right now. Don’t hold grudges; offer forgiveness and move on. Don’t make a big show about the sacrifices you make; do what you have to do and then go about your business as usual. In other words, don’t let pretense characterize your faith: just be yourself. The sorts of things a carefully cultivated image can get you – things like approval, status, and admiration – aren’t treasures that will last. Instead, Jesus says, concern yourself with building an authentic relationship with God, which is a treasure far more precious than anything attainable on earth.

Jesus is obviously much better at this “fatherly advice” thing than Polonius is; it’s easy to tell that he knows what he’s talking about and that this is guidance worth listening to. And yet, he still runs into the same problem that parents dispensing advice have encountered since time immemorial. Human beings have an aggravating tendency to react against advice given in our best interest. We pick up the tools of rebellion early on: eye-rolling, whining, complaining to friends, and the finest examples of passive-aggression you’ll ever see (lest you think I’m being judgmental, I will note that I’m speaking entirely from experience here).

Laertes is often portrayed in “Hamlet” as visibly mocking his father behind his back during this scene. Presumably, few of our parents were as arrogant and conniving as Polonius, but I’d venture to guess that most of us have reacted similarly to parental advice at one point or another. It doesn’t matter whether the advice is good or bad, it seems to be a human instinct to disdain “fatherly advice”, no matter the source.

Like Laertes and like us, the disciples don’t seem interested in listening to advice, either. I’m not saying that they’re rolling their eyes, making fun of Jesus behind his back, or being particularly passive-aggressive (although that IS kind of funny to imagine). But they just can’t seem to get on board with Jesus’ message about authenticity. In Matthew 16, Peter tries to get Jesus not to talk about his death – “Shhhhhh, don’t say stuff like that!”. In chapter 17, the disciples are unable to heal a child because of their lack of faith (scripture doesn’t elaborate, but I suspect that the disciples may have leaned more on theatrics and flair in their healing than on God). In chapter 18, they ask Jesus about how to attain status in the kingdom of heaven, and then in chapter 20, James and John HAVE THEIR MOTHER ask Jesus to grant them seats at his right and left hand in the kingdom. This all sounds more like Polonius’ strategy – try to get ahead by making yourself look good – than the clear advice that Jesus had given them.

The truth is, “fatherly advice” can be difficult to take to heart, especially the kind that encourages us to let down our guard and be authentic. Authenticity is scary! It’s much more comfortable to follow a script that’s been carefully prepared so that we can keep our outward façade intact – either that, or just to say nothing at all. But that’s not who Jesus is calling us to be.

One of the easiest ways to be authentic in our relationship with God is through prayer, and yet, so many of us struggle with it. How many of you would be willing to stand up right now to offer an authentic prayer to God on the spot? I can relate; it’s taken me a long time – years! – to become comfortable with extemporaneous prayer. It shouldn’t be this difficult; prayer is just talking to God (who, as Jesus points out, already knows what we’re thinking) and yet the idea of offering a public prayer, even in a gathering of like-minded people, is paralyzing to a surprising number of Christ-followers.

So, Jesus offers what we’ve come to call “The Lord’s Prayer” in his advice to help us. As much as we cherish these words, the point isn’t for them to be the only ones we ever pray. That’s not authentic; it’s repetitive. The point is for us to pray in the WAY that Jesus teaches us: simply and from our hearts. The Lord’s prayer isn’t a formula; it’s a model. Speak plainly. Ground yourself in the present. Don’t worry about what you sound like. Tell God what’s on your mind and heart. And let God do the rest. The “best” prayers are the most honest prayers – and that sort of openness can take a lot of practice. But the treasures we gain from offering impressive-sounding prayers in someone else’s words are short-lived. The treasures we gain as a result of being fully authentic with God, on the other hand – treasures like forgiveness, relationship, salvation, and the kindom of God – those things last forever.

In the end, the bulk of Polonius’ “fatherly advice” doesn’t really help anyone: as you might expect from a Shakespearian tragedy, everybody dies (sorry if that’s a spoiler; you’ve had over 400 years now to read it now). But he did get one part right: to thine own self be true. This is what God wants from us; this is how Jesus urges us to live. Don’t hide behind flowery words or carefully arranged faces or pious attitudes. Just be yourself, and you’ll find that it brings you closer to the divine than any scheming or masquerading or performing ever could.

So, like Laertes, you should probably ignore Polonius’ advice. Sometimes, father DOESN’T know best. But definitely DON’T ignore Jesus’ advice. Be authentically yourself, especially in your faith. Pray with words that flow from your own heart without hesitation or fear. Live as you were created to live. Although it can be difficult and feels risky, being authentic with God will never end like a Shakespearian tragedy. Just the opposite, in fact. It will yield for you the greatest of all possible treasures: you shall have life, and have it abundantly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment