Ash Wednesday

This passage enjoins us to humble acts of righteousness and a heavenward focus that are befitting of Christians preparing to enter the Lenten season.

February 13, 2013

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Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This passage enjoins us to humble acts of righteousness and a heavenward focus that are befitting of Christians preparing to enter the Lenten season.

Our attitudes should not be those of self-seeking hypocrites but should reflect a heart focused on the kingdom of heaven.

Verses 1-6 and 16-18 deal with the practice of three kinds of religious acts: charitable giving, praying, and fasting. The point is the same when applied to each of them: These are not to be done in a way that attracts attention to oneself, or God will not reward them. The message is straightforward enough, but each part presents its own challenge when applied to twenty-first century life. Verses 19-21 present a more timeless and still quite challenging message of putting one’s treasure in heaven rather than on earth.

The Principle: Righteousness To Be Rewarded by God, Not People (Verse 1)
Verse 1 states the principle to be applied to the three types of religious acts that follow: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The NRSV translates the Greek dikaiosun­­e here as “piety” rather than the usual “righteousness,” a translation more in line with common English usage but which loses the connection between this passage and the broader message of the Sermon on the Mount. Righteousness is in fact the basic subject of the entire Sermon, the righteousness that is required to enter the kingdom of heaven (as 5:20 most clearly states). The rest of our passage is thus part of the broader description of righteousness that occupies most of the Sermon.

Almsgiving (Verses 2-4)
Jesus’ application of the principle to almsgiving is the most easily transferable to the modern situation — and therefore the most challenging for us to follow directly. In his day and ours it was and is commonly seen as a reasonable reward for those who provide charitable gifts to be honored by having their names associated with their contributions. Are not churches, schools, and plenty of other institutions today filled with the names of those who have contributed to them?

In defense of this practice it can no doubt be argued that not doing this would decrease the level of giving to many worthwhile causes. But is this not the very hypocrisy that Jesus here indicts? Our society may understandably be impressed with such grand, seemingly selfless acts. God, apparently, is not.

Prayer (Verses 5-6)
The application of the principle to prayer is along the same lines as with almsgiving: It should be done privately so as to be rewarded by God rather than people. It should be observed that Jesus is not speaking of genuinely corporate prayer, as his example of praying on street corners indicates. He is speaking of private prayer that is done in public for the purpose of gaining attention for oneself.

The difficulty of applying this today is that it is not (so it seems to me) a very common problem. A much more common problem is Christians who are too self-conscious or who are otherwise afraid or unwilling to pray in public at all. Hence we must beware of using the passage as an excuse to avoid public prayer altogether. The basic principle of Jesus’ instruction, however, is certainly relevant. Prayer is for the purpose of communicating with God and experiencing God’s presence. To pray for any other reason is not to pray at all and thus to engage in the kind of hypocrisy Jesus here condemns.

Fasting (Verses 16-18)
The difficulty of Jesus’ application of the principle to fasting is simply that fasting has little meaning for most Christians today, at least in the West. Fasting was a common religious activity for Jews and then also Christians in the ancient world, but not so today. It is therefore hard for us to conceive of what reward Jesus could even have in mind here. Being recompensed by God for charitable giving has a certain sense to it, and we can imagine rewards for prayer easily enough, but what reward could we possibly get from God for fasting? In fact, when fasting is done today, it is usually done precisely to draw attention, admittedly not to the fasters but to some worthwhile cause, such as world hunger. Can we make any sense of what Jesus is saying?

I believe our problem is that in Western culture we have managed to almost completely divorce spiritual practices from bodily ones. We so emphasize our inner heart and state of mind that it is hard for us see any benefit from such a thoroughly bodily action as fasting. For the ancients there was no such divorce, and hence humbling oneself before God through abstention from food — or drink, sleep, or sex — was a natural religious expression. What better time than Lent, where we at least have a tradition of self-sacrifice, to attempt such a bodily action of humility as fasting?

Treasure in Heaven (Verses 19-21)
The basic idea of Jesus’ message here is simple enough and fairly well known, but how does it relate to the rest of our passage? More directly than it might seem at first glance! In all three situations we are enjoined to seek reward from God — treasure in heaven! In all three situations we are enjoined to reject reward from people — treasures on earth. These verses actually sum up Jesus’ message about giving, praying, and fasting rather well. Of course, they also have a broader meaning.

The order of the clauses in verse 21 often strike readers as backwards. Wouldn’t we rather say that our treasures are expressions of our hearts, rather than our hearts following our treasure? But Jesus expresses a more challenging truth for us — our hearts are easily swayed by treasure, and it therefore becomes all the more important that we seek and store the right treasure to begin with, for our hearts are sure to follow.