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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

At every turn, the liturgy for Ash Wednesday pushes us toward serious self-reflection, toward honestly acknowledging who we are before God and before our communities. Throughout today’s liturgy, we are reminded that the heart’s commitments matter profoundly, that God cares about the state of our hearts more than outward signs of piety. Specifically, our scripture readings push us to reflect on our priorities and motivations– which ought to be focused on God alone, but are all too often misdirected. As we come to these texts this week, the recurring question is whether we are focused on our holy God, or on something else entirely.

In today’s gospel reading we hear from Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. The whole discourse seems to spring up from the sense of obligation which Israel had to God as God’s chosen people. “In chapter 5, this focuses more on the law, and on what it means to keep (or not to break) that law in one’s inner life and motivation. Now, in chapter 6, the focus is, to begin with, on the three things that Jews saw, and still see, as standard obligations: giving money, praying, and fasting. In each case… Jesus’ point is the same. What matters is the motive.” [1]

Jesus begins this discourse with: “Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them.” Assuming that our piety is already being practiced (through giving, praying, and fasting, for example), Jesus emphasizes that piety should be practiced in front of God alone, not in front of anyone else. Again, Jesus doesn’t say these practices don’t matter. In fact, Jesus assumes that giving, praying, and fasting will remain a crucial part of our spiritual practice, but these things are about practicing our piety before God for the sake of our own spiritual formation, not performing our piety in front of others for personal recognition. Jesus is saying that what matters is our internal motivation and the state of our hearts, practicing our piety simply and for God alone, quietly and genuinely meeting each other’s needs, “match[ing] the outgoing, spontaneous generosity of God.” [2]

The tri-fold example uses a parallel pattern that sets up antitheses of motives, between showboating in public and simplicity in secret:

whenever you give, do not announce it publicly with trumpet blasts, but rather give alms so secretly that you do not even let one of your hands know what the other is doing… and God who sees in secret will reward you.

whenever you pray, do not craft elaborate and wordy speeches, but rather pray so secretly that you can carve out a space to simply and honestly commune with God… and God who sees in secret will reward you.

whenever you fast, do not put on a dismal face to publicly announce your misery, but rather put on a cheerful face so that your fast may be a joyful secret between you and God… and God who sees in secret will reward you.

These extreme antitheses of motives, between showboating in public and simplicity in secret, force us to check our own hearts. Are we like those hypocrites who show off their religiosity in public? Are we performing our piety in front of others for personal recognition instead of practicing our piety in front of God for the sake of spiritual formation?

And if we are honest with ourselves, and with God, and with our communities, we have to admit that we see some of those tendencies to showboat our piety and to perform our spirituality for recognition. Are we not the people who wear the busy-ness of do-gooding as a badge of honor? Are we not the people who, on top of our super busy work schedules, also sit on boards, chair committees, teach Sunday school, volunteer at the food bank, never miss church on Sunday? Are we not the people who want everyone to know when we’re fasting, performing our spiritual disciplines for an audience? Are we not the people who tragically bemoan how difficult a sacrifice it is to give up coffee, or chocolate, or social media for Lent?

The contrast between the public practices of the hypocrite and the secret practices of the disciple are meant to be hyperbolic. Jesus puts together a string of parodies that makes us first recognize ourselves in the ridiculous example, and then to laugh at ourselves in that very ridiculousness. The good news is we can move from self-centered people to God-centered people. The disciplines of Lent– giving, praying, fasting– can be received as gifts of God that point us to God’s presence in our lives and our world. The invitation of a Lenten fast is to move away from an obsession with our own do-gooding, and into a kind of secrecy in discipleship where we are caught up in single-minded obedience to the one we follow.

In these examples, Jesus emphasizes the secrecy or hiddenness of the disciple’s practices. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the self-forgetfulness of the disciple, the ones who should “keep on following Jesus, and should keep looking forward to him who is going before them, but not at themselves and what they are doing. The righteousness of the disciples is hidden from themselves.”[3] And Stanley Hauerwas says, “Not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing when giving alms is only possible through the overwhelming self-forgetfulness that comes from Jesus’ call to discipleship.”[4] Richard Rohr would say that the self-forgetfulness of the disciple means a forgetting of the Ego, the voice that wants recognition and success and reward. Practicing our piety in secret means we are not paying attention to our own do-gooding, but instead we’re just following Jesus, the only one who is truly good.

The other refrain in this passage is the promise of reward: the God who sees in secret will reward you. Perhaps this reward is an ever-deepening secret communion with God, learning to live in the presence of the loving God who goes with us always, learning to do everything for God and God alone. Because what other reward would we really want? What reward are we seeking by our constant busy-ness, our do-gooding, our constant proclamations of piety? Recognition and approval and success? Well, then we’ve already received that “reward,” whatever that’s worth, and it’s so fleeting and ephemeral, just like the material possessions consumed by moth and rust or stolen by thieves. Some of us will receive the imposition of ashes this week, as a reminder that we also are ephemeral. From dust we are and to dust we shall return. As we lean into the invitations of Lent– giving, praying, fasting– we also lean into a kind of hidden and secret discipleship, in which inside and outside match perfectly, because both are focused on the God who sees in secret, an ever-closer companionship with the God who sees in secret will be reward enough.

[1] Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Page 54.

[2] Ibid. p56.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Page 149.

[4] Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. (Brazos Theological Commentary). Page 76.