18 February 2015

Matthew 6:1-21

“Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’” (vv. 19-21)

Psalm: Psalm 51


Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent and a time of preparation for Easter. During this time of preparation, the Church has followed a long tradition of self-denial and acknowledgement of all that cuts us off from God. It's called Ash Wednesday because of the ancient practice of people receiving a mark on their foreheads in ash as a sign of their sorrow for the ways they have failed God.

Yet Jesus, in the part of the Sermon on the Mount - a collection of his teachings brought together in Matthew chapters 5-7 - appears to forbid this practice (Matthew 6:16-18)! It's an external sign of something that should only be seen by God. There is a middle way: I personally find it helpful to receive the sign of ash as a reminder of my own failings, but I don't let the sign hang around too long on my forehead.

Jesus's teaching here is about the inner practice of faith - that which only God can see. He challenges us to give anonymously, to pray in secret, and to offer God our thoughts (verse 8) as well as our spoken words. The prayer that he teaches - the "Lord's Prayer" - is not taught to be recited from memory, but to be used as a model for all our prayers, so that we remember to offer praise and thanks, pray for God's reign, say sorry, forgive, and pray for ourselves and others.

The aim of true religion is not so that we can receive the praise of others, or earn God's love - washing and anointing are done by people preparing for a banquet to which they are invited!

To Ponder

  • How are you going to use Lent to prepare for Easter? Is there some spiritual practice you can take up as well as some harmful habit that you can give up?
  • Think about ways in which you can practice your faith in secret - so that only you and God know about it.
  • Jesus said "When you give alms, when you pray, when you fast …" Have you tried fasting? If so, how did it help your spirituality? And how can you give and pray meaningfully?

Bible notes author

The Revd Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.