10 February 2016

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“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.” (v. 6)

Psalm: Psalm 51


(Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40 days of Lent. In church services, ash may be smudged on people's foreheads as a sign of sorrow for misdeeds. It is also a reminder that we come from dust and will return to dust. God's love and power hold us in being every moment of our living, and apart from that we are dust.)

This passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was teaching those who wanted to follow him, that what really counted was the attitude of their hearts and minds, rather than just the outer appearance of their actions.

He was teaching about almsgiving (giving to the poor), the spiritual discipline of prayer, of fasting and also being careful with what you treasure most in life.

Jesus taught that we should give in secret. If we tell everyone what we do, we are in danger of being attached to everyone's good opinion of us. We act out a 'part'. Hypocrites act out a part. True alms giving is an act of generosity - an over-spilling and sharing of God care of us. Trumpeting our good works can make us vain, putting ourselves in the centre, rather than to God.

Similarly we should pray in secret, rather than to attract the admiration of others. In prayer, we must be naked, honest and truthful before God, pouring out our hearts. God who sees the sincerity of our prayer will answer it.

Fasting is the discipline of going without food. Officially for Jews the only fast was the Day of Atonement, when eating, drinking, bathing and anointing with oil were forbidden. But at the time of Jesus, it was also exercised by individuals at other times. They could draw attention to what they were doing by wearing sackcloth, and putting ashes on their faces. This defeated the inner purpose of fasting which was to recognise dependence on God.

Finally Jesus taught that we should take care about what we value most. Our possessions can come and go with the vagaries of the weather, economy and politics. But God's gifts of life, love, joy and relationships cannot be stockpiled in measurable human terms on earth, but are kept safe for us as the gift of heavenly treasure.

To Ponder

  • If no-one knows how much you give to charity, or pray, how do you keep yourself accountable to playing your part in the big map of God's world, rather than your small one?
  • What different types of fasting have you done or not done? Why did you do or not do this, and what did you learn?
  • If you could be granted the deepest wish of your heart, what would you wish for (or not wish for) and why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Jenny Ellis

Jenny is a Methodist minister and this year has permission to study, as well as work alongside a rural chapel to help it find a new physical presence and sense of mission in its village. She is leading a number of quiet and study days.