Ash Wednesday

This section from the Sermon on the Mount is read at the beginning of the Lenten season, on Ash Wednesday.

February 17, 2010

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

This section from the Sermon on the Mount is read at the beginning of the Lenten season, on Ash Wednesday.

Yet we do well to ask whether it is really a Lenten text. Those planning worship will often send signals to the congregation that the seasons have changed. The paraments will change to purple. People will be listening to this sermon midweek, rather than on a Sunday. And in many congregations the service will follow a different format. The message is clear: we are making the start of a new season. Yet this is what makes preaching the Sermon on the Mount so challenging: It is a word that knows no season–and that can be quite helpful.

First, this word is not really about you and the season. The passage includes no references to a journey that starts on Ash Wednesday and culminates on Easter Sunday six and a half weeks later. There really is no mention of movement at all. It deals with life in the presence of God, and that is ongoing.

We might try to make some easy connections to the season, and the passage contains several sections that seem to invite the seasonal links. One deals with giving alms (verses 2-4), another deals with prayer (verses 5-6), and yet another focuses on fasting (verses 16-17).

Prayer is of course a major focus for congregational life during Lent. Midweek services invite people to come and pray more often, and those planning worship will try to find ways to generate interest in attending. Fasting in the strict sense may not play much of a role in our congregations, but many do have the soup suppers, which at least make a gesture in that direction. They encourage us to simplify the evening fare one day a week, supping on chicken noodle soup and bread, rather than meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The problem is that Jesus is not speaking about prayer that is confined to a season. There will be as many reasons to turn to God in prayer on the day after Easter as there are on Ash Wednesday. Prayer is a way of life. And as for alms, the need for giving of our resources will be as pressing in summer as in late winter. Human need is never confined to a season, which means that sharing what we have will be an ongoing concern. And fasting? Who knows, many may find the idea of eating less strangely relevant after the Easter feast.

Second, Jesus’ words are not a check list of dos and don’ts. To be sure, he gives some very specific directives, especially about the problem of doing things merely to get recognition from others. Jesus warns against practicing our piety (or literally “righteousness,” Greek dikaiosynē) for the sake of boosting our reputation in the eyes of other people. But if we reduce this to a checklist of dos and don’ts we might want to tell Jesus that the list is really not necessary. We are actually doing rather well in this department.

When it comes to prayer, we may occasionally see a Christian making a public display of prayer on the street corner in order to impress other people (verse 5), but many in our congregations would never dream of doing that. In many communities, making a public display would bring disapproval from bystanders, not affirmation. If Jesus commends praying in secret, most of us may be quite happy to oblige (verse 6). We are quite ready to keep our prayers out of public view.

Similarly, there may be some who disfigure their faces to show how diligently they are fasting (verse 16), but many of us do quite a good job of keeping up appearances. We do not need much encouragement to put a good face on things (verse 17). That is the way many of us work all the time.

Finally, we get back to almsgiving, and this might be where we want to negotiate a bit with Jesus. We might tell him that we are certainly willing to forego the trumpet blasts along main street (verse 2), but it would be nice if we could at least get our names listed in the program along with the other contributors to our favorite cause. It seems like a reasonable request. But again, this is not really the point. Jesus is not giving us a checklist of social dos and don’ts. So where does this leave us?

Third, Jesus does business with us when he says that our lives are open to God. He repeatedly refers to his Father, “who sees in secret” (verses 4 and 18). Is that law or gospel? Jesus clearly strikes a note of gospel when he assures us that we need not rely on the whims of public opinion to find worth in what we do. God knows, and Jesus assures us that God’s opinion counts above all others. Others may not give us the recognition we deserve, but our Father in heaven will do so.

Yet this is also the unsettling part of the passage. With God there is no private space. We may conceal ourselves behind closed doors, but God is there. He sees more than we want him to see, he knows more than we want him to know. This is enough to drive us to the cross. This is not just a Lenten journey. This is a life journey, and it begins with the recognition of who we are before the God who sees in secret. We may put up a good show for other people, but this will not do for God. He can see the regrets and the hurts, the fears and mistrust–so we might as well own up to it. And as we do, trust that God will not give us what we deserve, but will give us what he extends by grace.