1 March 2017

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (v. 1)

Psalm: Psalm 51


Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent - traditionally a time of fasting and self-denial. Today, in particular, is a day of penitence, and many church traditions mark it with 'ashing'. Worshippers receive a cross on their foreheads, made of ash, as a sign of mortality and repentance. You may have taken part in an ashing service yourself today.

Fasting, of course, is a spiritual discipline which is found in many religious traditions, along with charitable giving and prayer, all of which Jesus considers in this passage. His teaching on each makes the same basic point, which is summed up neatly at the end. We can engage in good works and religious observance for two purposes: to grow in standing with humanity, or with God. As Jesus puts it (verses 19-21), we can store up treasures on earth, by consciously building up our reputation for holiness or piety, or we can store them up in heaven, by consciously participating in God's mission.

The first of these options may seem attractive - who doesn't like to be respected or well-regarded? But Jesus points out that it is a risky option. Just as moths, rust and thieves can deprive us of worldly wealth, our frailty as humans can cost us a carefully-built reputation. It takes only one mistake or even one false rumour to lose us the respect of others. But God sees us as bigger than our mistakes, and knows the honesty and integrity (or otherwise) of our actions.

In verse 3, Jesus encourages his disciples, "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing". The idea of one hand not knowing what the other is doing is often used as a negative thing, to denote a breakdown in communication. But Jesus clearly intends something more positive by it. He is using the image as a characteristic piece of hyperbole - a ridiculous, even humorous, overstatement, of a kind often used in rabbinic teaching. Doing our good works in secret at least means we can be sure we're not doing it for human glory!

To Ponder

  • Do you think we really need to be secretive about our religious activity and good works? How does that sit with the idea of witnessing to God's love, through our Christian life?
  • Are you giving anything up for Lent? Or taking up a spiritual discipline? What will be the benefits for your life or faith?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.