Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday/March 5, 2014
It seems a great irony that the first words out of Jesus' mouth in this passage from Matthew's gospel is, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." It is ironic because when we leave this service we will bear a visible mark of being in church tonight. The ashes that are imposed tonight will remain on us during the meal we'll share after worship is over. We will wear them when we get into our cars to drive home. Some of us may stop for gas or go to the grocery store afterward, and every person we meet will see them. Isn't this somehow an example of practicing our piety before others?
Yet the practice of wearing ashes isn't so much about piety as it is about repentance. How many times do we read in scripture, particularly the Old Testament, about people repenting by wearing sackcloth and pouring ashes on their heads? Shouldn't Lent be a season when we reflect and repent on the ways we don't live up to our calling as God's people?
Wearing ashes is also about mortality. It is a reminder that death, that great equalizer, comes for us all. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, arrogant or humble, all of us are subject to death. These dusty marks upon our foreheads are a tangible reminder that from ashes we came and to ashes we will return.
Wearing these ashes, then, is not so much about piety as it is about remembrance and reflection and repentance. That's fine and true, but let's make sure we hear what Jesus is really saying. He isn't condemning acts of piety. The three religious and spiritual practices that he refers to in this part of the Sermon on the Mount -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- were expected of every good Jew. Jesus doesn't say, "If you give alms," or "If you pray," or "If you fast," he says, "When you give alms, pray and fast." It's not the act that Jesus is questioning as much as it is the motivation and intention behind them. If you pray because you want others to give you attention and respect, then you're probably not praying for the right reasons. If you fast and you make sure that you look miserable and hungry, then you're not fasting for the right reasons. If your generosity in giving alms is about making yourself feel good or earning the admiration of the community, then you're definitely not giving for the right reasons.
Jesus tells those listening to him that doing any of these practices in the sight of and for the sake of others is doing them with the wrong intention. The only one who should see and the only one for whom we should offer these practices is God. When we give to someone else, we should do so quietly. We shouldn't make a big show about it. And when we pray, we should pray privately so that only God can see and hear us. When we fast, we shouldn't let anyone know what we're doing. Only God should know.
Jesus is trying to impress upon them that while what we do is important, why we do it is more so. This isn't a new message, is it? We read and hear over and over again that God wants our hearts, not empty sacrifices. There is nothing wrong with spiritual practices or religious rituals. As I said, they were expected and Jesus wasn't questioning that expectation. He was questioning the motivation. Do you do these things to look good and feel good and seem good to others, or do you do them for God? What is in your heart? Where is your heart?
I think that's the crux of this passage. Where is your heart? Where are our hearts? In verses 19-21, Jesus turns to treasure. Don't build up earthly treasure, treasure that can be stolen or destroyed; treasure that can rust or decay. Build up treasures in heaven. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Biblical scholar, Rolf Jacobsen, said about this verse, verse 21, that he has often heard it preached wrongly by others, and he has also preached it wrongly. He has tended to interpret it in reverse. Our heart should be with God, so we should give to God our treasure; whether that treasure is our wealth or our time or talents. But really, Jacobsen says, it is the other way around. What we treasure, who we treasure, shapes our hearts. Our hearts are shaped, they are defined by what we treasure. He tells the story of a friend of his who likes to start the day by overtipping for breakfast. If you know something about food service and the restaurant business, you know that breakfast is one of the cheaper meals. For a waitress or waiter, the breakfast shift usually doesn't mean a lot of big tips. Therefore getting a big tip at breakfast is a big deal. Jacobsen was inspired by his friend and began to do the same. He said that when he began doing this, offering this one act of generosity to specific people, he became more aware of all people who depend on tips for a living. This decision of how he would spend his treasure shaped his heart in a much larger way than he expected. Where he put his treasure shaped his heart.
Aren't the ashes that we wear tonight, indeed this whole season of Lent, about the shaping of our hearts?
Frederich Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking, powerfully described the shaping of our hearts that can happen in this season. Hear his words.
"In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year's income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year's days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it,you would be willing to die for?
If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sack-cloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end."
Where will we put our treasure in the days to come? How will our hearts be shaped, individually and communally? May these ashes be the first visible step in that shaping. Amen.