Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday represents the beginning point of the paschal liturgical cycle. It is composed of two seasons, Lent and Easter (Pasch), and two single-day Sunday celebrations, Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. Easter Sunday celebrates the founding story of our Christian identities as the day marking the faithful proclamation Jesus, as the Christ, has risen” (Luke 24:5-12)! Pentecost Sunday celebrates the gift of the collective inspiriting of Christ’s believers with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14; 2:1-3) who was active throughout the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 1:35, 41; 3:22; 4; Acts 1:2, 5, et cetera).
Ash Wednesday kicks off this two-season cycle. It is a cycle of reflection and reliving Jesus’ journey toward his death, metaphorically referred to by Paul as the paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; Exodus 12:3-8, 21). It is also a cycle of expectation. We anticipate the renewal of being a diverse, believing people through rekindling the spiritual fires of Pentecost.
Thus, Ash Wednesday is an important moment of beginning. Today’s readings from Matthew 6 hold elements of somberness and encouragement, reserve and anticipation, and activity and steadiness. The Gospel lesson is a preparatory invitation to “still ourselves” before God and assess the practices of faith that will accompany us in this season of faithful worship and “re”-living.
In terms of literary context, Matthew 6:16, 16-21 is a part of the first extended discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The other extended Jesus monologues and teachings in Matthew include: the discourse on mission (Matthew 10), the parable discourse (Matthew 13), the discourse on community practice (Matthew 18), and the apocalyptic discourse (Matthew 23-25).
There are, at least, two interpretive angles for approaching this Ash Wednesday text with a focus on stilling ourselves before God.
Why we do what we do
Today’s lectionary unit highlights three (3) religious practices common to first-century Judaism that continue to be practiced today: (1) almsgiving (Matthew 6:2–4), (2) prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), and (3) fasting (Matthew 6:16-17).
Each practice is prefaced by Jesus with the conditional clause, “whenever you…” Each description that follows, juxtaposes human perception to God’s reception of our religious activities. There is a striking contrast between public performance and internal disposition running like a silver lining throughout this unit. For example, public performance of giving is juxtaposed with giving anonymously to others without fanfare or recognition. Likewise, the public performance of prayer is eschewed for a quieter form of centering presence before God. It depicts fasting as a mode of constancy, as opposed to altering one’s appearance to announce what is your current religious practice of choice. Viewed through Matthew 6, Ash Wednesday is a calibrating moment, indeed. We are presented with the opportunity to evaluate ourselves by asking: “Why do I do what I do, during this season?”
What matters—visibility or invisibility?
While it is a matter of visibility and invisibility, even more importantly, Matthew 6 raises questions about religious practices that are perceptible and imperceptible, and to whom. In verse 1, this unit begins with the warning, “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention” (Common English Bible translation). The unit concludes in verse 19 with a warning command, “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth … ” (Common English Bible translation). Our faith commitments are public confessions of living out the justice of God as a believing collective (2 Peter 1:1-2). But it is also about ensuring that we do so not because we seek notoriety, greater power, and more influence among our communities. We live out our faith as a people compelled in the reward (misthos, Matthew 6:1,2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18) that comes with being accompanied by the presence of God.
Ultimately, today’s Gospel reading calibrates our sense of what is important in our religious practices. As we move into the Lenten season with our focus on fasting, prayers and giving, we assess: to what end are we living out our faith practices? For whom are we doing these things and what are we seeking to gain?
Our Ash Wednesday passage both describes and prescribes the forms and attitudes by which we make visible our relationship to God. More importantly, it reminds us that our faith is not defined by self-serving ends, even when we are doing what is good, just, and helpful. Our calling is to live out what is good, just, and helpful because in that way, we join Jesus on his journey.
The journey of this paschal liturgical cycle is characterized by caring about others and the world, whether it is popular or unpopular, applauded or criticized. It is a season to do what we do as faithful people because it deepens our identity and rootedness in the creative imperatives of God that care about the poor, the voiceless, the disinherited, and the exploited in opposition to systems that care less about its own people.
May we journey this season with Jesus remembering that his religious practices animated his social actions. And, together, they sent him to the cross first, not the throne.