Today’s reflection is about the season of Lent and specifically uses the Gospel text that will be used at the Ash Wednesday worship service at Advent Lutheran Church, Murfreesboro, TN, on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. I wanted to explore this text today in order to prepare my own heart and mind for the season of Lent.
S (Scripture): Matthew 6:1 [Jesus said:] “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 3 But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you….”
16 “When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
O (Observation): V. 1 of this text lays the foundation for these verses included above. In particular, the word “righteousness” has significance. Some translations use the word “piety” here. Piety has a very individualistic connotation. Yet the Greek word indicates “justice”‘or “righteousness” which thus has very communal connotations.
Jesus warns the disciples not to focus their efforts of communal justice so that they give themselves the praise. No. Rather, Jesus wants his disciples to practice communal justice for the sake of the community – for God’s Kingdom!
Jesus is challenging the societal structures and norms in order to help his disciples live differently. The disciple are to be motivated not by gaining favor with a human audience but the divine audience. In the first century – not so unlike today – a person’s reputation helped them “get ahead” in the world, even if it meant showing off by how much you could give up in alms and possessions, and pray for others. If the motivation was for favor of a human audience, you were missing the point.
A (Application): Ever had someone pray for you who was doing so only for public gain. It feels icky, doesn’t it? The same goes for someone giving financially or giving up something for human favor. Feels weird.
Well, I think the practices of prayer, giving, and fasting, are great…we just need to keep in mind the goal: favor of the divine audience, not the human audience.
Having grown up in a tradition that recognizes Lent as a season in the church year, I have almost become numb to the idea of giving something up. I want to resist the trend, so as not to be seen trying to favor a human audience. Isn’t putting ashes on one’s head making a public statement? Isn’t that being too public???
But then, maybe if the motivation is right – divine favor – then doing this public act of worship and imposition of ashes is important. Perhaps the divine favor comes from making this special day (and season) of worship an exercise in lifting up the communal nature of my faith walk, in opposition to my personal, selfish desires.
I will help our congregation look into two special areas during this season of Lent: working with veterans in our community and working with those with special needs in our community. This – I pray – is for communal good and for divine favor. These new ministries in the congregation I serve will be a way for me to help look outside of myself and to bring hope and joy to these folks we will work with in these new ministries.
P (Prayer): Lord, make me whole…turn me from selfish desire. Clear my heart and mind for social good. Amen.