Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There is perhaps no worship occasion in the Christian calendar where the ritual practice and the appointed Scriptures seem to clash more profoundly than Ash Wednesday.
After all, no sooner do we finish hearing Jesus tell his disciples that when they fast they should not only avoid marking their faces but actually clean them then we walk forward to have our faces disfigured with the mark of the cross traced in ash across our foreheads.
Three Activities, One Goal
So what’s going on? Is Jesus’ condemning the very actions we engage in on Ash Wednesday? Actually, no. In fact, we miss the force of Jesus’ comments all together if we think they are aimed at these spiritual practices. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the disposition of the heart and, in particular, the goal or, as Jesus says, the “reward” the practitioner seeks.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes up three of the most important religious practices in the Judaism of his day: giving alms (contributions to those in need), prayer, and fasting. In each case, Jesus begins his comments with the formula of “whenever you…” as an introduction to instructions of both what not to do and what to do. (The lectionary in this case helpfully leaves aside the Lord’s Prayer so that we may focus on what originally was most likely a trio of sayings.)
In each case, it is not the practice itself that is critiqued, but rather the goal of the practitioner to be noticed by his or her peers. This desire to be seen, to receive the approbation and affirmation of those nearby, is what defiles an otherwise holy act. Thus, the contrast is between performing the action in a way that draws attention from ones peers rather than in a way that honors God and seeks only God’s approval. In each case, therefore, Jesus asserts that when you give alms, pray, or fast with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward…and all of your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, as it only feeds one’s desire and need to “be seen” by one’s neighbors. Such practices should, in contrast, flow from a devotion to God that is expressed by caring for neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded.
Which brings us to what may be a key element in this passage, though it is often overlooked: seeing. This passage is littered with the verb and its derivatives, as it appears more than a half dozen times in a relatively short space. Hypocrites — literally, actors, “those who put on a face” — engage in pious activities for play, for attention, in order that others may see them (and presumably admire them) rather than from a sincere desire to engage in the activities for their own sake. In contrast, Jesus lifts up the possibility of being seen by God. (In this case, “in secret” is not so much about mystery as it indicates a private rather than public domain.)
So what’s so important about being seen? Well, to be seen is not simply to be noticed, but to matter, to count, to have one’s sense of self validated in the eyes of another. The temptation Jesus urges us to avoid might thereby be understood as the urge to allow others to determine our worth and validity. When we fall prey to such a temptation, our reward indeed is to be noticed and affirmed by those around us. But it is a fickle reward and leaves us dependent on the whim and will of others. Therefore Jesus urges that we look to the Creator whose gaze is not only steadfast but life-giving. Notice: nowhere in the text does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen, to matter, to be noticed and counted as worthy. Rather, Jesus urges us to place our trust and confidence in God, the one who is not impressed by outward shows of piety but sees, weighs, and notices even the secret places of the heart.
At the center of this passage, then, is a promise: God sees us. God notices us. God accords us divine attention and pronounces us worthy of God’s care and concern. Rooted in the authentic assurance our relationship with God gives us, we can therefore engage in spiritual practices whole-heartedly, not hoping to achieve the approval of others or even of God, but confident that God’s approval has already been given. More than that, we can offer our lives as testimony to the One who accords us worth and dignity in the first place, as Jesus instructed just verses earlier: “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” (5:16).
Can the ashes imposed at the beginning of Lent be twisted into public displays of piety in an attempt to be noticed and admired by others? Certainly, as little that we do cannot be. But keep in mind that they were never intended as marks of piety. Rather, they are reminders of our mortality, as when the cross is traced in ash across our foreheads we simultaneously hear the words, “From dust you came; to dust you shall return.” Faced with the stark reminder of both our mortality and our absolute dependence on God’s mercy and grace, we may actually be better prepared to hear again and believe Jesus’ promise that God, who created light from darkness and gives life to the dead, sees us…and loves us to the end.