“Practicing Your Piety In Secret”
“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. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
~ Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (NRSV)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent, the season of the church year, during which we focus our attention on our devotion to God before Easter. Ash Wednesday gives us an unusual opportunity to focus on our mortality and our sin. These are not popular topics, nor issues that we like to address, but Ash Wednesday gives us a wake-up call with these realities. The gospel lesson for today reminds us to give alms, pray, and fast quietly, without drawing attention to ourselves. Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is, there our heart will also be.
Our quest during Lent is to draw closer to God. The traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, praying, not saying alleluias in worship, giving up things, journaling, donating money are all intended to focus our devotion on God. They are meant to remove barriers from our relationship to God, to take away hindrances from our growth in God. They are supposed to help us strip away excess and get back to the basics of faith.
Yet again this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that nothing is automatically religious in itself: not giving, not praying, not fasting, not giving up things for Lent. Religious things aren’t an automatic plus. Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson are evidence of that. Jesus says, "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." Piety is not bad, but parading around so that others will be impressed by your religion is futile, says Jesus.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day would pray three times a day, offering a standard prayer of eighteen lengthy petitions. Some took great pride in praying these prayers in the street surrounded by the crowd so everyone could see how pious they were. Jesus said, ’Practicing your piety in public is no evidence of faith.’ Now, yes, giving money to Amnesty International is better than wasting it on cocaine. Praying for the poor is undoubtedly better than overcharging the poor, but doing any of these to get people to notice defeats the purpose.
Because God is in secret and sees in secret, no showy display is necessary. God knows what is in the depths of our hearts, where no one else can see. Jesus didn’t mean for people to stop these acts of devotion but invited us to ask why are we doing what we are doing? We should always ask why? Why should I loudly complain about being hungry when I was fasting? And why did I gripe about having to read my Bible when I was studying during Lent? Why did I insist on dropping that $20 bill in the offering plate when everyone was looking? Devotion to God that is done to be seen is no devotion at all. The life of faith is low-profile. We minimize ourselves so that God can be magnified and glorified.
Remember that you are dust and to dust, you shall return. No pious praying, fastidious fasting, or religious wrangling will make your life worthwhile. There is more value in one quiet, selfless, faithful act than in a thousand boisterous voices praying for the sake of being heard. Don’t stop using traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines, but use them for their intended purpose: to draw closer to God. "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth not rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also."
Lord, Holy One, have mercy on us. We confess our sins to you. We have fallen short of your glory, and without your mercy and grace, we would be dust. We repent now. Lord, as we enter into this Lenten season, be near to us. Help us, by your Holy Spirit, to feel the right conviction and repentance for our sin. Help us, by your Spirit, to have the strength to overcome the enemy.
Thank you, Lord, that Easter is coming! Death has no sting, no victory, because of Jesus! Glory and honor and praise to His name! Thank you for rescuing us. Help us keep both the weight and the joy of this season in our hearts, and we move through the next several weeks. Help us bear the good fruit of your Spirit.
Thank you that the ashes on our forehead do not symbolize our ultimate reality. From dust, we might have been formed. Still, our bodies, our spirits, ourselves, await beautiful redemption and the restoration of all things. Help us long and look forward to that day, and let it come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.
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The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent, the season of the church year, during which we focus our attention on our devotion to God before Easter.