Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Beware of practising 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.’
Do not be like the hypocrites …
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day on which we begin our Lenten pilgrimage. We all know that a pilgrimage involves a journey, but how many of us fully comprehends the difference between a pilgrimage and a recreational excursion? The difference lies in both purpose and intention. As with any journey away from homely comforts, both pilgrimage and excursion lead us into unfamiliar territory. Both pilgrimage and excursion can provide refreshment and renewal. However, it is only pilgrimage that is linked to the express intention of spiritual transformation. When viewed in this light, our journey through the season of Lent takes on a truly profound significance.
The forty days of Lent draws us into a personal engagement with the gospel account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. For forty days, immediately following his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was tempted to demonstrate his divine power for personal advantage and to renounce his oneship with God. The persuasive language of the Devil was powerful, but Jesus’ resolve to remain true to his calling was even more powerful. As we journey through Lent, we are called to remain just as strong in the steadfastness of our faith.
Over the centuries it has become common for people to give something up for Lent. In earlier times this fasting involved such practices as eating only one meal in each twenty-four hour period, as well as totally abstaining from the eating of meat. More recently our Lenten disciplines have revolved around chocolate and alcohol. For many, the observance of Lent has become divorced from any notion of spiritual transformation.
In today’s reading Jesus reminds us how deep-seated our ongoing spiritual pilgrimage should be. Jesus speaks of almsgiving, prayer, fasting and self-denial. Each of these practices has long been associated with helping us to focus on that which is truly and spiritually significant. However, as Jesus reminds us of the spiritual importance of these disciplines he also adds another dimension … he tells us not to be hypocrites and to make our spiritual journey in secret.
Human beings like to show off. We especially like people to see when we are being or doing ‘good’. It is this trait that Jesus is warning us against. The word hypocrite was used in ancient times to mean ‘actor’. Actors are those who convincingly pretend to be other people. Such a way of behaving does not bring us nearer to God, instead it leads further and further away from Him. Making a public display of our almsgiving, prayer and fasting only serves to reinforce the superficial nature of our play-acting approach to living the holy life which is God’s call to us all.
Today we are called to start again. God is calling us to stop diverting our energies into showing others how ‘holy’ we are. God is calling us to focus solely on our relationship with Him. In his words Jesus has laid the path for the perfect Lenten pilgrimage. All we have to do is to follow that path until we, ultimately, come to the joy of the resurrection.