Below is a homily originally preached at St Barnabas Anglican Church, Charnwood for Ash Wednesday on February 13, 2013. As we approach Ash Wednesday, I offer it once again.
‘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. (Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21, NRSV).
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the fourty days known as Lent. They mark the time of preparation as we approach our communal remembering of Easter and mirror the period of fasting and temptation Jesus undertook after his baptism.
Traditionally this was a time of preparation for baptism. Of course, it is also a time for those already baptised to hear the call of discipleship anew.
There is something appropriate about this. Baptism symbolises the disciple’s willingness to die to the old life and rise to the new. It is a clear reference to the call to follow the Jesus who lived, suffered, died, and rose again.
It is a reminder that our lives are called to echo the life of Jesus.
For many this lenten focus involves the taking up of some sort of discipline. This may take the form of relinquishing something that is seen as destructive, or the taking up some practice designed to bring us closer to God.
Our passage does not oppose the taking up of such spiritual exercises. In fact, there is an inbuilt assumption here that giving, praying, and fasting are pleasing to God and part of faithful God-honoring practice. There is a repeated phrase here: ‘…your Father…will reward you.’ Clearly Jesus is hoping that his listeners will take this to heart and seek after the prize of God.
But there is also warning here. Indeed, on balance, Jesus offers more warning than encouragement. Our passage begins with ‘Beware’ and holds this dramatic tone throughout – and all this without descending into prohibition. Jesus is erecting a warning sign, not a stop sign.
It would seem there are grave dangers when it comes to ‘piety’.
Giving, praying, and fasting – and all manner of spiritual discipline – can all too easily descend into acts of hypocrisy. The term contains overtones of insincerity and a willingness to pretend – ‘looking’ one way while ‘being’ another. Jesus paints here a portrait of a divided heart – torn between God and ‘others’.
Make no mistake, both offer their rewards.
Yes, giving, praying, and fasting in front of people really does have its benefits and recognitions. Be they financial, career enhancing, or simply the bolstering of a fragile ego – there are realaccolades to be found in religion-before-others.
Real ‘treasures on earth’ accolades. Rewards that stem from – and are limited to – the temporary praise of people. Yes, the world really may be fooled by the act.
But God is not.
God is the one – the only one – who ‘sees in secret’. Those acts of gratitude and piety undertaken out of sight are actually seen. The good, unfoolable, Father is watching and honoring our undivided deeds with a reward specified only as: ‘treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal’.
Here is a – no the – safe and secure place for both ‘your treasure’ and ‘your heart’.
It would seem that piety insists on an audience. The only question is ‘Who?’