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2014 Ash Wednesday – MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-18

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward for 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 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 not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

The story is told of an eastern ascetic holy man who covered himself with ashes as a sign of humility and regularly sat on a prominent street corner of his city. When the tourist asked permission to take his picture, the mystic would arrange his ashes to give the best image of destitution and humility. Rearranging the ashes – an interesting description of the spiritual life.

The main theme today is Jesus’ headline: “Beware of practicing your piety before others to be seen by them.” Most of us like being noticed in our lives. As a child, we said “watch me” – watch me build this sandcastle, watch me do this cartwheel, watch me spell this word, watch me shoot this basket. When we grow up we’re not as obvious about it but we still want to be noticed. Notice me doing a good job, notice me helping this person, notice my intelligence, notice my humour. Sometimes this noticing carries over to our spiritual life. Notice what I know about the faith, how I pray, what I give. Notice how really spiritual I am. Or claim to be.

Jesus is concerned about theatrical spirituality. Being spiritual in order to be seen by people. In our passage “to be seen” is the root of our word theater. Acting spiritual. All churches have people who seem to be that way.

The motivation for the spiritual life is what is at issue here. Is our piety performed to affect status with God or with people? Jesus says that piety done to affect status with people only achieves status with people but it doesn’t count with God. What is the ultimate purpose of our spiritual activities? Our service, our prayer lives, our study and reflection, our mission? What is our ultimate purpose? To make connection with and commune with God, not to impress people.

St. Augustine points out the deadly danger of Jesus’ saying: “The love of honor is the deadly bane of true piety. Other vices bring forth evil works but this brings forth good works in an evil way.”

In our Gospel, Jesus addresses the way we give, the way we pray, and the way we fast. These are three common forms of Jewish piety. Jesus assumes that we will be involved in the spiritual life. The issue is not whether but how one practices their faith.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets…but when you give do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Trumpets were blown when calling people to a feast and other important occasions. But there is no record of somebody blowing a trumpet to announce their gift. That practice would have been unusual as it would be today if somebody had a brass band announce their presence at church or having a string quartet play while we put our check in the offering plate.

When we give, we don’t make a show of it. We don’t play a trumpet for the world to notice, or have a camera to record the special moment of our benevolence. We do not give for the crowd or the camera. We give because it is an integral part of our relationship with God.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and the street corners to be seen by people.” This is not a common experience for us – seeing someone pray for show. We don’t often see somebody who prays because they love to hear their own voice. So just what does this advice of Jesus mean for us? Prayer is conversing with God, honestly and naturally. In prayer we are talking to God not people. Prayer is rooted in a desire to commune with God not in a desire to make a public display of our spirituality.

Jesus tells us that when we pray we are to go into our room and pray to the loving God in private. This room probably refers to the supply room which was the only room that could be locked in the house. It was used to store feed, small animals, tools and other supplies. But it could be locked, it could be private and that was the supreme consideration. We close the door not only to lock out distractions and disturbance but to resist the temptation to impress others.

Jesus is often portrayed as praying privately (Mark 1:35, 6:46), but it also should be pointed out that on occasion Jesus prayed aloud where others could hear him (Matthew 11:25, 14:19). The prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer is worded in the plural, as a corporate prayer rather than a private one. Gatherings for public prayer together were a regular feature of the life of Jesus’ disciples from the very beginning. The issue here is not whether prayer is public or private but the direction of prayer – to God or for people.

The last spiritual discipline Jesus mentions is probably the least familiar to us. Few of us fast for any reason at any time these days. Fasting, though, is a historic, ancient discipline in the church particularly during the season of Lent. Fasting was also an important part of the Jewish faith. They fasted on the Day of Atonement as well as other special days. The Pharisees made a practice of fasting twice a week.

The purpose of fasting is to go without food to focus one’s attention and energy on God. Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. He said “When you fast….” not “If you fast.” There are a number of biblical reasons to fast: to help us to humble ourselves before God, when we are repentant for what we have done, when we seek guidance. Jesus often fasted when he was making important decisions. Another reason is to appreciate what many people around the world go through on a daily basis.

The issue for Jesus, though, is those who fast in a showy way. They would put ashes on their foreheads which would dirty up their faces. It would give them an ashen look. This would make them look gloomy, disfigured, dismal. They would draw attention to themselves. We could probably draw attention to ourselves today by just announcing that we were fasting! That would be impressive!

This is the beginning of the season of Lent, the most common fasting period in the church. Fasting developed from a two-day fast, through a week-long fast, to biblical “forty days” not including Sundays. This was modeled on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness when he also fasted.

We are spiritual for God not people. We serve to please God not to get recognition. We can bluff a human audience and people will think we are genuine. They watch us give, pray, serve and they say “Wow, here is a committed Christian!” But if we are bluffing, God is not fooled. God can see right through our fake modesty and generosity, through our spiritual showiness.

What God desires is honesty, integrity, heart-felt commitment. God desires generosity, conversation, and spiritual practices that flow from our deep commitment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

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