“Beware of practicing your piety before others to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 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.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. However, when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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 also be. Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21 (NRSV)
We are invited to read this story about Ash Wednesday, which symbolically acquires a new challenging meaning for us today.
In these two sections of Matthew 6, we see how hypocrisy relates to justice and mercy, prayer of words, or as a political speech, fasting, and enrichment through power. These themes are triggered by the rhetorical questions addressed to the audience in Mt 5: 46-47: For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?... And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? When confronting the audience with these questions, the examples called out are the tax collectors and the Gentiles, and the call to attention is to be perfect as is God who is in heaven (Mt 5:48).
How can these two sections of Matthew 6 be interpreted in the light of the Ash Wednesday celebration? The celebration of Ash Wednesday is something visible; it is a public gesture that has several dimensions: liturgy, spirituality, corporeity, interpersonal and community relationship. The celebration of Ash Wednesday can be seen as a journey of discernment. We do not go naively on this journey; we are seen and judged by our actions, the implication being that there is something legitimate and also something illegitimate in what we think and then act on.
Relationships, identity, purposes. The biblical passage cited shows relationship at different levels, including levels of spirituality with God, with society, with things, and with the wholeness of humanity itself. The pillars of religious piety such as offering, prayer, and fasting, not only establish fundamental relationships for daily life at the individual and community levels, but also shape identity. Actions guide this identity and the image that we wish to share. The public and the private are not in opposition, as they are often portrayed in our society. We must salvage the link between these two spheres and the message in the texts. What are the purposes or motivations that guide our spirituality and ethical action? What is our practice of concrete and tangible justice? What are the terms with which we define our relationships, identity, and motivations?
Our gaze, other points of view. God sees in secret, is close, and is in us. The sense of seeing in secret does not indicate anonymity or concealment, nor that we are before the great vigilante to our actions to punish or reward. There also is our own gaze, our own point of view, which in some way already carries a judgment in itself. In Latin American theology, the sociological method of seeing-judging-acting affirms this.
If at the beginning of this Lenten season we want to really see ourselves and in the eyes of God as Christian men and women, we must commit ourselves to live out mercy, to talk with God about the pain and joy of life, to experience in our bodies the need of others and the joy of living according to Christ – all with the purpose of transforming reality toward being more just, equitable, and supportive.
The symbol of the Cross in ash placed on our foreheads, or wherever we wish to receive it, becomes a humble and public gesture of sharing the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Previously published on Working Preacher: you can access the full text of the original version in Spanish, here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1587
Aura (Violeta) Rocha-Areas serves with Iglesia Bautista Emmanuel, El Salvador. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.