Wednesday 02 March 2022

Bible Book:

‘Beware of practising your piety before others’ (v. 1)

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 Wednesday 2 March 2022

Psalm 51


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the 40 days (plus Sundays) of preparation for Easter. It is kept by many Christians as a time of additional discipline. By leaving out of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount the section on the Lord’s Prayer (vs 7-15), the lectionary offers us Jesus’ words on three key spiritual disciplines, each or all of which might be part of Lenten observance: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

Almsgiving (giving to charitable causes) was and is part of Jewish life. While the Greek word that Matthew uses seems to suggest that this is an act of pity or mercy, it is a key part of the ‘piety’ of which Jesus is speaking. The word rendered ‘piety’ in the NRSV might be translated as ‘righteousness’. In the Jewish understanding, giving to the poor was not only about feeling compassion for those in need, but also recognising that all things are God’s and that for some to suffer want while others have plenty is unjust (not in accord with the righteousness of God). So Jesus urges his followers to avoid play-acting by drawing attention to their generosity and to see their use of what they have as part of their duty and devotion to God.

Similarly, Jesus reminds his disciples that prayer is between the believer and God, not something that should be done ostentatiously. It seems that the examples given are exaggerations (and we can imagine the humour and animation of a preacher’s description of what the ‘play actors’ or ‘hypocrites’ might do to draw attention to themselves); the point that is being reinforced is that we pray to and for God alone. The idea of praying in an inner room in one’s own home is a reminder that prayer can be offered anywhere and does not need special, still less public, places for it to be valid.

The third section is about fasting. It appears that it was custom in Jesus’ time for people to abstain from food and to accompany the fast with outward signs (sackcloth and ashes). The disciples of Jesus continued the practice. Later the Church moved the customary fast days from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday; by the Middle Ages in Europe, practices had become standardised (eg, abstention from meat was the origin of ‘fish on Friday’, and pancakes on Shrove Tuesday). Fasting might have been to grieve, as a sign of repentance, or as part of devotion to a time of prayer. Once again, Jesus’ message seems simply to be that those things are between the believer and God and outward displays are unnecessary and futile.

To Ponder:

  • The Church continued the practice of almsgiving; our earliest account of Christian worship includes evidence of a collection for widows and orphans. Is there the same focus on giving for those in need in your church?
  • Where do you find it most helpful to pray? Have you got a secret place?
  • Giving up something for Lent is the way in which fasting has been practised by many Christians. How does it compare to secular practices that are similar to fasting and have become popular (eg, Dry January or Veganuary)?
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