Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Giving to the Needy
1“Be careful not to practice your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
This is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the beginning of one of the two most holy seasons in the life of the church. It’s a season in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord.
It’s also a season during which many people who follow Jesus adopt some additional spiritual practices. Which is why this passage from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount is often listed as a reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s a passage in which Jesus offers direction about how we are to conduct those disciplines of the faith that are regarded as defining us as Christians. Actually, the lectionary lists only the first and third parts of the passage, but the three parts are clearly related, so it makes sense to think about all three.
The point Jesus is making in all three of these passages is that our disciplines of the faith are meant to be aspects of our relationship with God, not ways of attracting attention to ourselves as people of faith. The question each of the three cases seems to ask us is, “Why are you doing this?” Are you giving offerings to bless others and support the work of God’s kingdom in the world, or are you hoping to boost your own image for generosity and piety? Are you praying to maintain an open channel of communication between yourself and God, or as an opportunity to demonstrate your own eloquence and religiosity? Are you fasting to break the grip of worldly things over you, or to let people know how much you’re willing to endure in God’s name?
It makes sense that our mothers and fathers in the faith would call upon us to read and think about this passage on the first day of the Lenten season, because many followers of Jesus still ‘give something up for Lent.’ That’s probably an alternative form of fasting, and as such it’s a fine thing. But we still need to ask ourselves that ‘Why?’ question.
Lots of people seem to give something up for Lent that they know they should have been giving up or cutting down on already. People give up sweets, or chocolate, or other rich foods. So the question that comes to mind is, ‘Is this sacrifice is a genuine spiritual practice, or just an attempt to get God to help you with your diet?’ For most of us, eating healthier and losing some weight are worthwhile goals – but they’re worthwhile goals for an atheist, so a follower of Jesus should probably prayerfully reflect on what their real motivation is.
And there’s something a little shaky about telling all your friends about what you’re giving up for Lent, right? It seems like Jesus would want you to aim to get through the season without anyone knowing that you’re performing that kind of fast.
In the middle part of this passage, Jesus also encourages us to pray simply. Unison prayers in worship tend to be carefully written out in a pastor’s study, so they sound churchy. But the prayer Jesus gives us to pray is pretty plain and simple. And Jesus encourages us to let our prayers be private – just between ourselves and God. Some followers of Jesus tend to pray long prayers in crowded restaurants before starting to eat. Jesus is probably calling us to check our own motivations for those prayers in public, too.
And the same goes for giving. There’s a natural desire to have people think we’re generous – especially for followers of Jesus. But if we’re hoping for recognition for our generosity, our motivations are at least mixed, right?
Probably the greatest benefit of the season of Lent is that it invites us to question our own motivation for doing things. Lots of us – maybe most of us – want to get some benefit out of most everything we do. But this season reminds us that what we do in our life of faith is meant to benefit the kingdom of God. So we should always be on guard against allowing our own self-interest to creep into those practices.
But of course, the life of faith is seldom as black-and-white as we would like it to be. And Ash Wednesday is a perfect example of the tensions that exist between various practices and the teachings of Jesus. This is a day when we read our master’s word about practicing our faith in secret – and then get a cross of ashes on our foreheads and go out in public.
So it’s probably important to remind ourselves of why we do that. It’s not to let others know how religious we are. But rather to let others know that we recognize ourselves as sinners in need of repentance and transformation. Keeping that fact in mind will go a long way toward instilling the spirit of self-examination and repentance that’s meant to be at the heart of the season of Lent.
Let’s pray. Lord, during this holy season, help us to see ourselves more clearly – to see ourselves more nearly as you see us. Create in each of us a pure heart, and renew in us a steadfast spirit. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 5 and 51; Jonah 3:1 – 4:11; Hebrews 12:1-14; and Luke 18:9-14.)