Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.
But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?
We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.
Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.
Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”
Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?
Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?
Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.
The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”
Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?
So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?
Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.
Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.
As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.
We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.
God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.