Ash Wednesday

Our concern about who is watching is to be focused on God

dust running through closed hand
Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 14, 2024

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

Praise, Praise, Praise, Praise, Praise!

Seems like a lot of praising, right?

It is a lot of praising, but it’s the very amount recommended in a TV commercial that I started seeing again sometime in the summer of 2023. Addressing parents of young children, the guideline is clearly stated: “For every one time you correct your child, praise him or her five times.” According to the commercial, you have a much better chance of having your child grow up to have all the self-confidence to live a good, successful life if you observe this 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.

We seek praise

Who do we want to impress with our actions, with our service? Do we want to impress other people or God?

Sometimes when we strive to impress people, it is to score points for some ulterior motive—even if the motive is as simple as a wish that they think better of us. Our reputation becomes our aim. This text questions us as to where our focus is. Is the point to enhance our reputation? Is it material evidence that we’re successful in our careers? Is it even to make sure we’re the life of the party?  

There are efforts that are worthwhile: For example, being a good parent, as is encouraged in that TV commercial. If we do our best in parenting our kids for their sake—seek to give them a solid foundation for their character, for their education—that is one thing. But it is another thing altogether if we focus on being the super-parent at the school’s parent associations or to prove we’re worthy of admiration by relatives and friends. What is our motivation for what we do?  

Our gospel text for today encourages us to make sure our concern about who is watching is focused on God and not on other human beings. 

For example, do we give to our church anonymously? And if that would be impractical because it would not count as a deduction for our income taxes, as in some countries like the United States, do we at least expect that we should have a bigger say in parish decisions for being one of the bigger donors in the congregation? Do we love anonymously? Do we help anonymously? Don’t we say sometimes after we’ve been helping someone: “After all that I’ve done for you?” We helped someone; now somehow that someone is obligated to repay us—if not with money, then with their obedience or deference.  

This text encourages us to think this way: Let our good actions be focused on God alone; let them be only for God. Our good actions are not to assure us that others respect us, admire us, approve of us, love us—though that may surely be an unintended and ancillary result of our service.  

It may be understandable that those of us who were not affirmed when growing up go around our whole lives looking for approval and affirmation from others. That is an unfortunate and common reality for many. Reflection and psychological guidance may help meet some of our need for God’s unconditional affirmation. 

The kernel of the text

Matthew 6:1 serves as a sort of template for most of the rest of this gospel text. I say “sort of” because whereas the verses on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting state guidelines on where not to put your motivation, as well as where to put it, verse 1 states only the negative: where not to put it.  In any case, the kernel thought holds for all three subsections: we are enjoined to seek not the approval of other people but of God only.  

The text then concludes with the well-known “treasure in heaven” passage and the famous verse: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).  Even this verse can be accommodated to the theme of the entire lesson: the proper focus of our management of our financial resources is God (heaven) rather than the impermanent and unreliable realm of earthly things. 

It is Ash Wednesday …

On this most solemn of liturgical days, those present in worship are invited, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” hearing again the words of Genesis 3:19. The kernel of the text relates to this emphasis: At the end of our lives, when all things earthly will wither into irrelevance, we will depend entirely on God. Our text encourages us to be about that spiritual focus now, in our current daily lives on earth.

… and the start of Lent

And this day marks the beginning of the season of Lent, for many denominations and congregations a time to observe the disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, works of love. (Many denominations and congregations have a variation on this list, adding additional items such as repentance, confession, and the like.) So important is this 40-day period leading up to the grand climax of Holy Week—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday—as the church observes the central parts of Jesus’s life. The threefold emphasis in our Matthew text can serve to focus the Lenten disciplines’ emphases.

Homiletical meanderings

The preacher may profitably focus on several questions:

  • Are there stories from the congregation’s life, either individual or communal, of a clear focus on God and God alone, to the exclusion of all earthly considerations? What has that been like? Comforting? Liberating? Stressful? Fearful? Where are the growing edges in these stories?
  • In the congregation’s practice of the Lenten disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, or fasting, has the focus been on God alone? If not, what has that been like? Has there possibly been a temptation to impress neighbors, visitors, or each other for praise and approval?
  • Does our congregation tend to sometimes seek recognition of success, or is it sometimes afraid of judgment by worldly standards?