5 March 2014Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” (v. 1)
Ironically, this is the day (Ash Wednesday) when many Christians will appear in their place of work or be seen in the streets with a dirty smudge on their foreheads, indicating (for those who understand these things) that they have been 'ashed'. The Gospel reading that preceded their ashing was this extract from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus repeatedly counsels his disciples to do their good deeds "in secret" (v. 4).
The good deeds are of three types and (by omitting the passage in which Jesus teaches the Lord's Prayer) we read three carefully paralleled paragraphs on giving alms (verses 2-4), praying (verses 5-6), and fasting (verses 16-18). These duties are clearly obligatory (each paragraph begins "when" or "whenever", not 'if'). What is at issue is not the fact of performing religious duties, but the attitude in which they are performed. The disciples are not to follow the practice of the "hypocrites" (literally, those who are playing a part) (verses 2, 5, 16) and do these things in public so that others will see them. The disciples' good deeds should be done in such a way that only God sees.
But there is a theme of reward running through this passage. The praise of others is an ephemeral reward for any good that the disciple does. Jesus points his hearers to the lasting rewards that God gives to the faithful (verses 4, 6, 18). The final three verses sum up that distinction with the metaphor of treasure and again remind us that what is vital in all this is our interior attitude. Is our focus on the lasting (but invisible) things of God or the fickle and unreliable credit that we can gain from others?
- How far, do you think, is there a difference between other people noticing that we are faithful in religious practice and parading our piety in public?
- Jesus and Matthew assume that charitable giving, prayer, and fasting are obligations which disciples meet regularly. To what extent is that assumption true of you?
- In Lent, fasting is brought to the fore. Have you tried to fast as a regular discipline? What value did you find in it?