Day Three: The Why in What We Do

“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. 2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “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. 6 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.”

—Matthew 6:1-6

This text is one of four passages that the Revised Common Lectionary tells us to read on Ash Wednesday. I’ve always found this recommendation funny, or at the very least perplexing. After all, in this scripture selection, we read Jesus’ admonition to his followers. “Don’t make a show of your piety,” Jesus says. “True holiness is not about appearances.”

Yet, here we are, at the beginning of Lent, literally marking our faces as a sign of our faith. We wear ashes on our foreheads as symbols of our fasting, of our participation in the practices of Lent and in the community of faith. Or, we make Lent a time to give up something life-altering, and we make sure everyone knows about it. We give up caffeine or sweets or posting on Facebook, and we reach out to others to make sure our sacrifice is accounted for. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus tells us not to do?

This question is one that gnaws at me every year. If Jesus tells to be careful about making our piety public, how are we really to behave in Lent? After all, this is the time of year—perhaps the ONLY time—when our spiritual practices suddenly become a matter of public discourse.

Personally, I’ve arrived at an understanding of this passage from Matthew that emphasizes not the individual practices of piety, but their impact on our relationships with God. For example, if I choose to give something up during the Lenten period of fasting, I force myself to ask why. Am I making a decision that will make my life look better on paper? Or, am I truly examining my life and thinking about what can bring me closer to God?

I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he tells his disciples to be wary of conspicuous piety. Jesus knew that we will all be tempted to do things—even really good things—for the wrong reasons. This Lent, let us consider why we practice our spirituality the way we do. How can we adjust our daily practices to bring ourselves into closer relationship with God?

—C. Dauterman, March 8, 2019

Jay Horton