Several years ago, I had the brilliant idea to fast from one of my favorite things on God’s good earth during the season of Lent. I decided to fast from coffee. I know some of you reading this just gasped; so did many of my friends who knew how important coffee is to me when I shared my plan with them. My first mistake: deciding to try this fast during college, not long before midterms were slated to take place. My second mistake: thinking I could go 40 days without people knowing I was fasting from my favorite beverage. I know what you all are thinking… “there’s no way she lasted all 40 days of Lent.”
Let me be the first to tell you, you’re right. I didn’t last all 40 days of Lent. The grumbling started halfway through day one because my head was THROBBING. I kid you not, I couldn’t even focus because my brain felt as if it was disconnected from the rest of my body and was being shaken around in a jar. My body was (and still is) dependent on the caffeine I consume through coffee so when the withdrawal symptoms set in, so did my complaining and grimacing because of the discomfort I was experiencing.
My advice: if you drink coffee regularly and plan to give it up, plan ahead so those around you don’t have to hear of your woes every minute of every day.
The lectionary gospel text this Ash Wednesday is found in Matthew 6, a mini-sermon from a compilation of mini-sermons or teachings from Jesus, commonly referred to as the sermon on the mount. In this short and poignant lesson, Jesus directs the attention of those listening to common religious practices and offers needed reminders—or, perhaps, corrections.
In the text, Jesus directs the listeners and us as readers to three common practices—almsgiving (giving to the poor), prayer, and fasting—as well as offers guidance regarding the storage of earthly goods.
The main and simplest takeaway here could be summarized as “don’t be a hypocrite.” Jesus mentions the term “hypocrite” three times in these 12 verses. But let’s take a closer look at these lessons from the ultimate teacher, Jesus.
When looking at any text, it is always important to take a look at what comes before and after. What comes before Matthew 6 is quite possibly one of the most puzzling or misunderstood verses in the canon. Matthew 5:48 reads, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As you know, cultural definitions of perfection differ across the board, and even more so from a truly biblical understanding of perfection. From being flawless in outward appearances to a score on a test, we often misunderstand perfection as something that is unattainable by most. So, understandably, at first glance this verse seems to be asking something impossible of those who desire to follow Jesus.
However, by taking a closer look at the way Jesus teaches, we can see his definition of perfection is quite different than any definition we can conjure up on our own. The first verse in chapter 6 quotes Jesus saying, “’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.” Could it be that perfection has nothing to do with what is seen by others—appearances, abilities, etc.—but has everything to do with motivation and intention of the heart? I believe it is safe to say that is the case for Jesus and his followers.
For Jesus in these teachings, a hypocrite is someone who does pious things for self-aggrandization and isn’t actually pious at all. Giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting are all important religious practices but to do them solely for the purpose of being seen and praised is quite opposite from the perfection the Father desires. In fact, if one is to be “perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect,” wouldn’t it make the most sense that the things we do out of piety are not seen, just as the Father is not seen?
Obviously, Jesus uses some exaggeration in his teaching. For example, hands don’t actually have brains that can comprehend what the other hand is doing. But the message is clear, don’t give to the poor in order to be seen or recognized. Give to the poor because it is what the Father asks of us and the right thing to do. Pray because you sincerely desire connection and conversation with God, not so that others will know you are praying. Fast to nurture your trust in God’s sustenance, not so that others will see and think you are righteous.
As followers of Jesus, we still practice these things. We also have other practices that merit the same admonition:
Go to a church because you desire the community and accountability that only comes from the body of Christ, not so that others will recognize that you go to church.
Sing loud from your heart because you are so excited to be praising God, not so others can hear how good (or bad) your voice is.
Raise your hands (or take whatever posture of worship) because that is how you truly feel connected to God, not so that the person next to you or behind you thinks you are extra spiritual. Likewise, don’t be afraid to take a posture of worship out of fear for what others might think, because that, too, perpetuates the mindset that what we do on the outside matters.
It can all feel very overwhelming, having to be mindful of why we’re doing things instead of just doing them. However, the more we do things with pure intentions—with the proper understanding of perfection in mind—the more they become second nature. That is the beauty of spiritual practices. The more we practice these things, the more they become habits.
But what about reward?
Upon first reading of the passage for Ash Wednesday, I wondered why the section about storing treasures is included. It seems a bit out of place considering it does not fit nicely into the category of religious practices. But it truly does make so much sense.
In western culture as a whole, we are so infected with the mindset that when we do good, we deserve a reward. Jesus conveys the promises of the Father to reward righteousness:
Verse 4: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Verse 6: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Verse 18: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
We like getting rewards. We like getting them in a timely manner, that is. But as our practices and habits begin to take shape after the Father, we will experience contentment in waiting for the best kind of reward there is: eternal life.
Jesus says this important line in verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If you treasure recognition and praise, that is where your heart is. And like the hypocrites, that praise is the only reward you’ll get. Like material treasures that are consumed by moth and rust,—wear and tear—that reward is only temporary and fleeting, providing happiness for a moment. But, if you treasure connection and obedience to God—true perfection—that is where your heart is and the Father will reward you with eternal life which can never go bad. Hallelujah.
As we step into the season of Lent, may the practices we choose to strip off or take on be done with one intention in mind: to connect with and obey the Father.