Reading for Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Peace be with you!
My life—how I act and what I say—evolves around my identity as a Christian. Sometimes I play a game inside my head to see how long it takes for strangers to learn I am a Christian. Usually it only takes a few minutes since my career as a Biblical scholar is centered on my faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. My identity as a Christian is strangely connected to my success as a scholar.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is a difficult one for us to hear. It is one that calls us to repentance. Jesus warns us about being like the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. He gives many admonishments: Do not announce to others how much you put in the offering plate (Matthew 6:2). Do not pray loudly so others can hear you (Matthew 6:5). Do not disfigure your face when you are fasting (Matthew 6:16). We are not supposed to make grand proclamations regarding our personal faith journey.
Then what does Jesus want us to do? Hide? He says, “Do not tell your left hand what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3 NRSV). How is this even possible? My right hand always knows what my left hand is doing, especially when they have to work together. (But then again, with cerebral palsy my muscles fight each other just to perform daily tasks!) I do not believe that Jesus means that he wants us to make such subtle movements that we barely notice them ourselves. Jesus does not want us to be put on a performance for the whole community. He doesn’t want us to tell everyone we donated the money for the church’s new oven, but to do it because we are able and willing to. It does not have to make a noticeable dent in our savings. The act just has to serve God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in order to further his mission.
Jesus’s point is that the acts of faith in our lives should be for an Audience of One, ultimately. Offering is to be something we give to God; it comes from him, and we give back what belongs to him. In Mark 12:43-44, Jesus praises a poor widow for giving all she has while the wealthy elite only give a tiny portion of their riches. The poor widow gives more than the others, because she entrusts God with everything she has to live on. God wants all we have to give, not so we can proudly announce our earthly accomplishments, but so we can share our very being with him. We cannot just give a portion of ourselves to God and think it will please him. God wants our all, even if it is not as much as the next person. God desires our personal best.
Then Jesus tells us to pray alone behind closed doors. This is a difficult for me since I am spiritually strengthened when praying in an intimate group. I will even be bold to say I pray better out loud in a group setting than when I pray quietly or alone. There is something amazing about hearing believers pray together, because prayers grow in depth as they wind together in a labyrinth web.
To contentedly pray alone–to be alone with God–is a bit scary. What do I even say? Most mornings and evenings when I lay in bed God must think I am a whinny three-year-old pleading to get her way: please Lord, take away so-and-so’s cancer or other ailment, or please, Lord, allow me to have a good day with so-and-so since she will be with me all day. And do not be mistaken that my prayers during my shower are much better: please, Lord, make me anew and give me the strength to do your work. Even though he knows exactly what I am thinking (the good, the bad, and the ugly), God wants to have a personal relationship with me through that special one-on-one time together. God wants to hear my pleas; he listens and wants to know I trust he will provide an answer in the future.
We can lose our thoughts in a large group. To sit alone with God allows us to quiet our minds and to speak honestly with him. Our God is a loving God who does not judge but offers love, hope, joy, and grace. We do not need to tweet incessantly about our undying love for God the Father. All we need to do is spend a few moments with God each day as we go about our busy routines.
The last spiritual ritual Jesus speaks about is fasting. In Jesus’s days, Jewish leaders would make their facial features look withdrawn when they were fasting so that they would appear more pious to everyone (Matthew 6:16). Jesus tells us to tend to our features in order to keep our fasting a secret. Again, we do not need to gloat about our fasting to prove our love for God the Father to everyone. God is the only person to whom we need to show our loyalty and love.
Most of us do not fast on a regular basis. If we do fast, it is usually for a medical reason, such as blood work or surgery. I believe this passage applies to more practices of faith than literal fasting.
My first thoughts go to pastors and mission leaders who work long hours to answer their callings but forget to take care of their own physical health or tend to their families. They and their families are left running on empty because of the idolatry of workaholism. Workaholism is the idea that you are irreplaceable; it’s ultimately all about you and what others think of you, not about God. God wants our work to be all about him; when we take the time for rest and family, we fast from workaholism. In doing so, we honor him and remind ourselves that he is the Center of it all.
We do not have to boast about our faith to get rewarded on earth. God sees our quiet acts of faith and will reward us in heaven. The Holy Spirit works through us in these acts of faith, grounding us in the love of the Triune God–God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As Galatians 5:22-23 states, the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, because the Spirit places God in our hearts. Holy Spirit makes it possible for our quiet acts of devotion to become second nature and to be in our hearts.
On this Ash Wednesday, I challenge you to work on doing quiet acts of faith, even if it means spending more time with family and friends. Do these acts of love and devotion without expecting fanfare; simply do them for God and God alone. Lent is a time where we can grow closer to the Triune God.
Take time this Ash Wednesday to make a plan to strengthen your relationship with God the Father. Your Lent practice should be something you want to add or give up beyond Easter. I have decided to give up online shopping for Lent to practice self-control and to resist the urge to buy whatever I want on the spot. To avoid binging after Easter, I will only buy one or two items that I really want and then force myself to answer, “Do I really need [whatever “it” is]? This way it becomes a practice in my everyday routine, not just for Lent. It will make more time to read books and articles, more time to write, and more time to spend time in prayer, because I will not be going on Amazon everyday or going to the post office to ship something back every week. I will also be forced to be content with what I have, especially in the clothes department. What will you add? What will you give up?
Do not be like the hypocrites by doing what rewards them here and now, focusing on themselves and their image before others. But act according to God’s will and God will reward you in heaven. Whatever you do: just do it for God and God alone. You are a star in a brand new universe, being formed by the Holy Spirit; shine bright, then, for God the Father alone.
Thanks be to God!
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for the promise of our reward in heaven. Help us to be little stars in the universe that you are forming through the Holy Spirit. Remind us to do subtle, quiet acts that tell our faith journey. Thank you for having a relationship with each one of us as your children. Amen.
Please answer the following reflective questions in the comments below. Please agree to disagree and be respectful to each other. (If you have not already done so, please also take a moment, to sign the behavior covenant by commenting on it.) You can answer as many questions as you would like.
- What will you add or give up for Lent?
- How do you have a private and personal relationship with God?