Ash Wednesday

It would seem that Matthew has offered preachers quite a gift — a ready-made three-point sermon on 1) charity, 2) prayer, and 3) fasting.

February 22, 2012

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

It would seem that Matthew has offered preachers quite a gift — a ready-made three-point sermon on 1) charity, 2) prayer, and 3) fasting.

These three are classic spiritual disciplines traditionally lifted up during Lent. Dividing the text into three parts, however, may not be the best way to approach this text on Ash Wednesday.

These three disciplines are examples of a broader exhortation that opens the passage, in the same manner that the antitheses are examples of Jesus’ hermeneutic for interpreting torah in the previous section of the Sermon on the Mount, 5:17-48.

An initial problem with focusing on the foundational instruction is that the New Revised Standard Version mistranslates Matthew 6:1: “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 Greek word translated here as “piety” is dikaiosunē. The importance of this word is seen in that Matthew uses it seven times, while it never appears in Mark and only once in Luke. Every other time in Matthew, the New Revised Standard Version translates the term as “righteousness.” So in 6:1, Matthew presents Jesus as being concerned with the performance of righteousness in a way different than the “hypocrites” perform the same acts of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Matthew usually uses the label hypocrites for the Jewish religious leaders (see Matthew 23). The First Gospel’s strong language against the religious leaders is rooted in a conflict between Matthew’s church and the synagogue after the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. Both were positioning themselves as proper heirs and interpreters of Israel’s traditions. We see this conflict arising already in 5:20, in which Jesus calls his followers to a higher righteousness than that of the religious leaders. Matthew presents Jesus as acknowledging their righteous behavior but intensifies the requirements for his followers.

In 6:1-18 the religious leaders are characterized as engaging in acts of righteousness but for the wrong motivation — gaining glory from people instead of serving God. Jesus calls for a higher righteousness — engaging in these acts in ways that do not draw attention to oneself but draws one closer to God. It is important to contextualize this contrast in light of the conflict named above because in truth what Jesus teaches here about not drawing attention to oneself accords with Jewish teaching of the day. In other words, Matthew does not present Jesus as critiquing Jewish acts of righteousness so much as arguing that the religious leaders do not follow their own teaching (see 23:3).

With the exception of the Lord’s Prayer inserted into the section on prayer (see above on passages omitted by the lectionary), the case studies follow the same rhetorical pattern:

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  Almsgiving (verses 2-4) Prayer (verses 5-6) Fasting (verses 16-18)
Introduction of Topic So whenever you give alms, And whenever you pray, And whenever you fast,
Negative Example of hypocrites do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces
Negative Motivation so that they may be praised by others. so that they may be seen by others. so as to show others that they are fasting.
Present Reward Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
Positive Instruction But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 
Positive Motivation so that your alms may be done in secret; and pray to your Father who is in secret; so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret;
Future Reward and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This pattern reinforces the idea that the individual topics of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not the primary focus for Matthew. They are simply lenses through which we can examine the principle of verse 1: when we do acts of righteousness appropriately, in ways that are not self-serving and do not seek admiration from other people, we will be rewarded by God.

Notice that the reward we get from other people is in the form of immediate gratification, but God’s reward is future, eschatological. But also notice that the principle does not assert we are to be righteous in order to get a reward from God. The contrast in the examples is not between seeking praise from people and seeking a reward from God. The contrast is between doing righteous acts “so that they may be praised by others” (verse 2; cf. verses 5, 16) and “so that your alms may be done in secret” (verse 4; cf. verses 6, 18).

To change strategies simply to get a better reward is still self-serving. Matthew wants the reader to get the point: doing acts of righteousness is “not about us.” We do acts of righteousness because they are right. Matthew is concerned with the intent behind contemporary acts of righteousness.

Reading this passage as the gospel lection for Ash Wednesday is a longstanding tradition of the church meant to illuminate the purpose of and appropriate approach to Lenten disciplines. The passage invites the contemporary church to rethink spiritual disciplines. Spirituality these days has become awfully self-serving. It may not be as crass as clearing our throat as we drop our check in the offering plate so everyone notices, but we do often do acts of charity, prayer, abstinence, study and worship with a consumerist mentality. What do I get out of it? How will it give me a higher level of satisfaction?  Matthew’s Jesus says, “It’s not all about you. Do it because you should — do it because that’s what Christians do.”