Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on March 1st, 2017, at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Ash Wednesday Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, & 16-21)
“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.”
We are then given three examples of what this means:
- When you give to the poor don’t do it in for the sake of being praised by others, instead don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing;
- when you fast, don’t let others see that you are fasting;
- when you pray – don’t do it so you can be seen as holy by others -rather, go into an inner room in your house where no one can see you and pray to God in secret, and the one who sees in secret will reward you.
Now first, let’s be clear, like almost everything in our scriptures these texts are ripe for misunderstanding and abuse. We can turn this text into the grounds a reward and punishment kind of religion, as if faith is basically about earning points with God so we’ll be rewarded later. Nothing could be farther from what these texts are about.
If you are into being scrupulous and read these texts through that lens, they will confirm everything you fear about the nature of the universe. You could hear them as calling for us not to be self-centered in any way. But that’s not what they actually say.
Other than to warn us not to turn our Lenten practices into a way of acting or thinking ourselves superior to others, what are these texts about?
I think they are telling us that one of the biggest temptations we face, one of the things most inimical to God-life, is our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others.
They tell us bluntly that we can get lost in our desire for the approval of others, and that letting this desire control us will bring us into direct conflict with Heaven’s agenda.
It’s a striking focus. There seem so many good things to warn us about on this the first day of Lent, but for Matthew right at the top of the list is this warning not to let our faith be corrupted by making it into an attempt to look good in the eyes of others.
To understand why this is such a serious issue for Matthew you have to understand that Matthew’s gospel is like one long raging howl against hypocrisy, about those who profess or pretend to be one thing, as a way of deluding themselves or others from seeing what they in fact are.
Matthew’s Jesus struggles not with non-believers, but with believers who have transformed faith from being a source of light into being a source of darkness, from faith being about the work of justice to being about supporting and maintaining injustice, from faith being a source of healing and health into a source of illness and corruption.
While criticizing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Matthew’s real target is those Christians who go around doing exactly the same thing: who love to look and sound pious, but who have forgotten the crucified God who lives in the isolated, the suffering, and the afflicted and whose life can only be known by living in solidarity with them.
I think if Matthew saw what passes for Christianity in so much of this country, we’d barely be able to stand his wrath. I suspect it would make the anger of Malcom X appear nice.
For Matthew, hypocrisy is what keeps those who are looking for salvation from finding it, because there are all these spiritually blind guides leading them further into the darkness. And, as Jesus says, when you have a blind guide you both up end up in the pit.
Practiced enough, hypocrisy – with its emphasis on hiding, being dishonest, and lying to others – leads us to become totally lost, no longer able to know who we are or where we are, unable to know whether we are full or empty, smart or stupid, helpful or harmful.
Those who follow the way of hypocrisy often end up with the kind of arrogance that leads others to see them as strong leaders, but they are nothing but a bunch of hot air, a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And our gospel today says that hypocrisy begins with something so simple and basic, so common among us, that it seems woven into our makeup – our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others. But Matthew warns us if you want your faith to be saving and not damning, if you want it to be healing and not corrupting, you must do everything you can to keep your faith from being about living from the outside in by attempting to look good in the eyes of others.
- You aren’t really giving to others if it’s all about getting paid back by being seen as superior in the eyes of someone else. No – give without reward so you can experience what it really means to give.
- It’s not really fasting, not really a sacrifice, if all day long you’re making a public demonstration of your pain. You are just feeding your ego. Fasting and sacrifice aren’t about being paid to give. They’re about giving at a cost.
- It’s not really prayer if you’re praying to appear pious in the sight of others. That’s just another way of claiming your place of superiority in the social order. No, prayer is about coming to know the mysterious God who the social hierarchy does not know, the God who lives in secret and who seeks to undo that very order.
While our anxious hearts think we need to be above others, this God creates the grounds for equality and social solidarity, the reign of true kindness, empathy and compassion, by letting us know that we are loved for who we are, including all those parts we want to hide both from ourselves and from others.
Most of us don’t come to know, experience, and believe in that kind of love until we’ve unhooked ourselves from our need for approval from others. This is the God for whom true faith is about living the new creation, turning the world upside down, overthrowing the reign of fear and shame and proclaiming the reign of redemptive love.
It’s going to be terribly difficult for you to be part of this revolution as long as you’re terrified about upsetting others, as long as you’re shamed when others look down on you, as long as you can’t claim you own experience, feel your own feelings, think your own thoughts — because you’re too concerned about fitting in and being accepted.
Lent calls us to a kind of social death. Putting on these ashes represents letting go of the illusion that we are superior to anyone else. Putting on these ashes is about letting go of roles and expectations so that we can open ourselves to the reality of what is, and who we are. Only in this realness we can discover how the brilliant life of God-in-us can live and reign in us here and now. Only here can we come to know the resurrected life that we hear Paul singing of as, even in the midst of all the adversity he is encountering, he proclaims:
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
We are treated as unknown, and yet we are well known;
We are treated as if we were dying, but behold we live;
We are treated as if we were sorrowful, yet we are always rejoicing;
We are treated as if we are poor, yet we make many rich;
We are treated as if we have nothing, and yet we possess everything.
Or, as another translation concludes this verse – “Penniless we own the world.”
So often, the greatest harm we do to ourselves and to others is rooted in our fear that other people will see who we are, or some aspect of our lives. This Lent, may we turn away from that fear and our need to look good in the sight of others and turn towards the One who sees us in secret, who knows who we are in our totality, not just our public faces, so that we can discover what it is to live with integrity.
May we too discover the power to live that fast that Isaiah proclaims and the heavenly life it makes possible, so that our “light might break forth like the dawn, and healing spring up quickly”; and we might experience our vindicator going before us and behind us. So that, when we call for help, we might hear God answer: “Here I am.” So that our “bones might become strong” and we “become like a watered garden, or like a spring whose waters never fail.” So that we might “rebuild the ancient ruins” and “raise up the foundations of many generations”; and become known as “the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.”
For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen