Ash Wednesday

Repent of the ways in which we misrepresent others and misuse power

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Photo by K8 on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 22, 2023

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

Many interpreters today acknowledge tension between Matthew’s congregation and some other Jewish communities. I write with the double conviction that Matthew polemicized against traditional Pharisees and that Matthew’s congregation was itself in the Pharisaic tradition. The key question between the two groups was: “Who is the authentic heir and interpreter of Judaism?” 

Matthew seeks to reinforce the congregation in its belief and practice that Jesus is an “apocalyptic rabbi” and that the time has come to strengthen its life and witness in the light of the dawning of the Realm of God through the continuing presence of Jesus and the future full and final expression at the apocalypse. Matthew seeks to discredit the authority of the traditional Pharisees and to present his own Gospel as the authoritative interpretation not only of Jesus but also of eschatological Pharisaism.

The contrast in today’s reading is not between “Jews” and “Christians” as distinct religious bodies but is more like a family disagreement over who best represents the identity and values of a family. 

From this wide-angle lens, the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is enigmatic. On the one hand, it sets a sober and self-reflective tone for Lent, so existentially important for the church in the chaotic early twenty-first century. On the other hand, the passage presumes the aforementioned picture of traditional Pharisaism so as to invoke some of the same criticisms upon Matthew that Matthew visits upon those Jewish leaders. 

Matthew 6:1 sets the theme for the readings. The disciples are to be wary of demonstrating their righteousness in ways that call attention to themselves (6:1). Matthew then presents three case studies that show how the theme plays out in practice: giving alms (Matthew 6:2–4), prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), and fasting (Matthew 6:16–18); the lectionary uses Matthew 6:19–21 as a summary of the consequences of faithful practice. Matthew’s interest here is not in the specific details of the cases but in portraying attitudes that come through the theme statement and the three cases. The congregation can then transfer these attitudes to other situations. This structure could easily provide a structure for a sermon: introduction (discussion of the main theme), three illustrations (almsgiving, prayer, fasting) and conclusion (the consequence of practicing righteousness, per Matthew 6:18–21).

The disciples are to practice righteousness (dikaiosunē), a motif that is important to the First Gospel (for example, Matthew 5:20). The righteous life is one that is “right” from the perspective of  embracing God’s grace and living according to God’s design for people to be together in mutually supportive, covenantal community. Indeed, the righteous life is one that manifests the qualities of the Realm of God

A key point: the practice of “righteousness” (Matthew 6:1) is essential to Judaism. Indeed, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are fundamental Jewish practices. Matthew does not object to these actions but wants the reader to believe that many Jewish leaders misuse them.

Judaism intends for almsgiving to make it possible for everyone in the community—including those on the economic margins—to participate fully in mutual support. Prayer, especially as illustrated in Matthew 6:9–16, is supposed to be prayer for cosmic transformation of the Realm of God to come about. Judaism intends the hunger of fasting to develop a hunger for the Realm of God. Developing the discipline to live with the hunger of fasting is designed to strengthen one’s discipline to live faithfully even in the face of challenge.

There are two significant tensions here. One tension has to do with the Matthean polemic. By the time Matthew wrote, the Romans had destroyed the temple. There was no opportunity for people to give alms accompanied by trumpet fanfare (and there is no historical record of people having done so). But Matthew designs this illustration and those about prayer and fasting to prompt the congregation to associate the Pharisees of his own day with the reprehensible behavior portrayed in the case studies. Matthew pictures the Pharisees as giving alms, praying, and fasting for the purpose of calling attention to themselves and hence to maintain their own power in the continuing structures of the old age. 

Many scholars point out that this portrait does not represent the best of Pharisaic intentions at the time of Matthew. Indeed, Pharisaism saw itself as a reform movement that sought to engender the faithful practice of Judaism in home and synagogue. Moreover, the Pharisees regathered Judaism out of the social chaos after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

The other tension has to do with Matthew’s injunction to secrecy. Earlier Matthew admonished the community to let their good works (their faithful witness and practice) shine so that they would give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5: 16-17). The First Gospel ends with the call to go and make disciples, which includes carrying out these practices in community as well as making public witness (Matthew 28:16–20). In a certain sense, Matthew uses the motif of secrecy in his public gospel to reinforce his own power and that of his congregation as chief interpreter of Jesus and the Realm.

I think Matthew’s concern is less for secrecy itself and more for integrity. The true test of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting is not the degree to which they are secret but the degree to which they enhance the community’s faithful witness. The disciples are to engage in almsgiving, prayer, fasting to serve the Realm and not to reinforce their own places of power in the church, as if the church is a creature of the old age.

While a preacher should be critical of the text’s polemic against the Pharisees, the text also invites a sober assessment of the degree to which contemporary ministers, churches, civic leaders, politicians and others use religion to reinforce their own interests more than to serve the Realm. Many individuals call attention to ourselves in order to gain recognition and to gather power while neglecting to serve the real good of the community.  

Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of Matthew’s mischaracterization. Indeed, Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of its continuing anti-Jewish attitudes that feed anti-Semitism and contributed to the Holocaust. Ash Wednesday invites the church to repent of the ways in which we misrepresent others and misuse power as if we are creatures of the old age.