I think the gospel writer Matthew would have a love/hate relationship with our modern practice of Ash Wednesday. He would probably love the fleshiness of it, love the stark realization of our impending death, love the confession that we’re just dust and ashes, love the command to repent and believe the good news of God’s rule and reign, and walking around town seeing people with smudged foreheads.
But I’m not sure what he would think about the recent #AshTag phenomenon: where you grab your marked-by-the-cross mates, snap a selfie, and upload it to the social media app of your choice making sure to include #AshTag in the caption.
That’s the rub, isn’t it. It’s important to do stuff like gathering to worship for Ash Wednesday, or reading scripture, or praying, or giving to the poor, or a million other things that are important to do. According to Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, however, just doing something isn’t enough. How it’s done matters.
Matthew 6, the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season when we are made brutally aware of our sinfulness and recognize our mortality, fittingly begins with the command “beware.” We are to beware of “acts of piety,” according to the NRSV, which connotes a personal attitude of devotion. The word here, however, is δικαιοσύνην, which speaks more of righteousness mandated by Torah and signifying the rule and reign of God on earth.
So what is it that Jesus wants those Jews and Gentiles who have gathered on the mountain to beware of? Maybe it’s our stubborn tendency to do these righteous acts for our honor or our reward on earth.
Jesus follows that opening “beware” with the three specific examples of things we need to beware of: charitable giving, fasting, and praying. All of those things are good things, things we would love to do more of ourselves, things that would have been praiseworthy for any Jew or Gentile, and things that are actually mandated by Jesus. Jesus’ warning isn’t about what; it’s a warning about how.
The warnings follow a similar pattern. They begin with the assumption that someone will actually do these things (where I live, that’s quite the assumption), followed by the instruction of how not to do it and concluding with the positive way to do it. The instruction of how not to do these things is formulaic as well. “So whenever you _____, don’t be like the hypocrites (ὑποκριταὶ).”
“Hypocrites” is a word borrowed from the theater and refers to actors who play their roles in order to be glorified by audiences for their impressive performances. It’s a word signifying deception.
Jesus strengthens the argument by instructing the crowds not to “trumpet” their alms giving, or stand to pray, or disfigure their dismal faces. All of those actions are not consistent covenant practice. They are things actors do to earn the public notice of others and public notice is not to be the end pursued by followers of Jesus. Therefore, the hypocrisy Jesus is criticizing consists in the fact they are concerned about their status with people rather than their standing before God.
Again, it’s not the actions themselves that Jesus is critiquing. It’s worse. He’s critiquing the way we participate in those actions and our using of those actions to bring ourselves honor instead of God. He’s critiquing the end of our practices which, regretfully, is to store up treasures, acclaim, and notoriety on earth through the manipulation of righteous practices. He’s criticizing playing a role while using righteous practices as props in our effort to deceive.
Instead of acting like hypocrites the faithful are to:
● continue giving alms but to do so in a manner that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing so that it can be done in secret
● continue to pray in a closed door room so that it can be done in secret
● continue to fast but with oil on your face so that it can be done in secret
According to Jesus, our Father who sees in secret will reward the faithful. Whereas the hypocrites have already received their reward here on earth Jesus is clear that the Father will reward the faithful.
While it’s not specified as such I think a faithful reading of the passage allows for verses 19-21 to act as a summary. Earthly treasures are insecure. Earthly treasures encompass not only not only literal treasures that can be stolen and destroyed but perhaps also praise and honor given by a person’s culture. Receiving that treasure is the goal of the hypocrites. Using actions intended to designate the presence of God for personal gain is the deception of deceitful actions.
Instead, the faithful are to store up treasures in heaven - the sorts of things one finds in right relationship with God and the kinds of practices that shape a heart so that it signifies the present rule and reign of God.
So, gather to worship this Ash Wednesday. Receive the mark of the cross and hear the call to repent and believe. Give up or add stuff for your Lenten practice. But, above all else, may we not be found as hypocrites. May we not use these righteous acts to store up earthly rewards. Instead, may our practices produce a heart that signifies the present reign and rule of God.
Maybe that could be this year’s #AshTag.
 Kittel, Gerhard, and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids (Mich.): WM. B. Eerdmans, 1972.