[Jesus said to the disciples:] “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. (Matthew 6:1)
(Note: Matthew then goes on to give examples of “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them—almsgiving, prayer and fasting” in vv. 6:2-18.)
I’m often afraid that when we gather for worship on Ash Wednesday and are reminded again of the “discipline of Lent—self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love” we will be so overwhelmed that we will want to run away from church and not come back again until perhaps Maundy Thursday at the earliest. This way of living in Lent seems to be too much for most of us present day Christians.
Actually, I believe that we can see in the smudged crosses on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday the clear reality of the life we live for God in this world. We are mortal—“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”—as the ashes are smeared on our foreheads. Yet the smudges are in the form of a cross. For those of us who have been baptized, this cross is a life-giving cross forever marked on our foreheads at baptism! We are God’s and will be God’s forever!
So, then the gospel text for the day is transformed and we can leave church on Ash Wednesday looking forward to Lent as an opportunity to show the world that living this way is not only a livable life, but the way that gives everyone an opportunity to live God’s good life!
For most of us, our failures will not be that we will parade around showing off how good Christians we are by following all these practices for Lent. Rather, our struggles (me included) will be whether in private or in public we will live in such a way that people can occasionally (at least) see God’s love and care in the way we are living and be attracted to this way of life.
The word “righteousness” keeps popping up in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew (5:20). So how can we understand righteousness as a background to this text and a “livable Christian life?”
Commentator Ronald Allen points out that the practices of piety prominent in the text—almsgiving, prayer and fasting—were Jewish practices that were basic to the Jewish religion.
Allen says that what Matthew is communicating to us from Jesus’ teaching is that we are to practice righteousness in following Jesus. Allen says: “The righteous life is one that is ‘right’ from the perspective of embracing God’s grace and living according to God’s design for people to be together in mutually supportive, covenantal community. Indeed, the righteous life is one that manifests the qualities of the Realm of God (Allen’s term)” or, as I have called it God’s new creation.
For followers of Jesus, then, almsgiving (offerings to help everyone in the community—including the poorest of the poor—participate fully in mutual support), prayer, (especially as we pray following our model, the Lord’s Prayer, for cosmic transformation to bring about God’s new creation) and fasting (giving up something from our daily living that allows us to leave more space for God in our lives and strengthen our practices to live faithfully in difficult time) become practices we can live. We can live them together in mutually supportive communities—communities in which we are always trying to help each other!
Consider this activity to highlight how you might incorporate some of these practices into your life as you live through Lent this year.
Take a sheet of paper to which you can refer often.
On one side, write some of the practices (giving and works of love, prayer and fasting) that you have lived in recent days or weeks. (Recall things like shoveling snow from your neighbor’s walk, bringing food to a food pantry, contributions to community groups helping provide food or shelter, people you are praying for, and offerings to your church. Remember to note the names of people who are helping you.) This is to help you remember that you are already living some of these practices.
Now on the other side, write “Lent 2023.” Make a list of practices that you want to focus on during the next few weeks. It could include some things that were on your first list as well as one or more new practices you’d like to try during Lent.
Remember to list the name(s) of one or more persons with whom you will share your list and ask for their help. As you refer to your list in the coming weeks, it is always OK to make changes by adding or subtracting activities and inviting more persons to help you.
So it is, simple livable activities like we can do every day can give us great encouragement in what we say to the world as we show the smudged crosses on our foreheads: God’s people live their lives forward in love, help others and seek ways for all people to live in harmony with one another!
O Loving God who accompanies us through all the days and times of our lives: forgive us when we hide ourselves from you. Walk with us in these days of Lent so that we may embrace your grace and live together in mutually supportive community where we are always ready to help others as Jesus showed us. Amen.