The homily I remember best may also have been the shortest. It was Ash Wednesday morning, the early morning mass when everybody has to get to work and so there’s not a lot of time for extra details. The priest got right to the point:
“The Gospel is from Matthew 6,” he said. “Jesus tells us how to give alms, and pray, and fast.” He said a few words about the importance of our Lenten observance, and then— “When you get home tonight, take a moment. Open your Bible and read Matthew 6. Ask the Lord to speak to you there; to tell you in your heart, what you should do. Matthew 6. Don’t forget.”
And that was that.
Like I said, it stuck with me. And when I got home, I opened Matthew 6 to hear from Jesus what he thought about my plans for Lent. It wasn’t what I thought.
To begin with, there’s no whether you fast (or pray or give alms) about it. Jesus assumes that we will do these things — and not just during Lent. And instead of helping us with what to give, give up, and pray, he focuses on the how.
There’s a lot in these verses, and you may want to go read them yourself and see what strikes you as we head into Lent. Here are the things that stand out to me:
Be careful who you follow.
In particular, Jesus says, don’t be like “the hypocrites” who can be seen everywhere, telling others about their good deeds and making sure their prayer and giving can be noticed. Jesus mentions them specifically, three times in this gospel. The Greek word in Matthew is hupocritēs – an actor in a mask, pretending to be something he is not. The word was also used as a verb, to mean “pretending.” A “hypocrite” tries to make people think they are more spiritual than they are, by drawing attention to things they do.
Do you know anyone like that?
Are you ever like that?
All hypocrites get for their trouble, Jesus says, is the attention of other people. Don’t be like them.
You will be rewarded.
This surprised me, but it’s behind everything Jesus says here. Don’t do good things to show off, he says, because God won’t reward you. Don’t try to impress people with your prayer or giving, because the praise you get will be all you get. Don’t look hungry so people will know you are fasting, because their comment will be your reward. INSTEAD: give in secret; pray in secret; fast in secret — “and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Our Lenten observance shouldn’t be done just out of duty. We can expect a reward! But a reward from our Father in heaven, not the reward of public opinion and praise. As Jesus said after telling us to give to everyone, even those who deserve it, expecting nothing in return:
“Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).
In other words, give to others and God will take care of you. Not stingily, but giving you more than you can hold. You will never outdo God in generosity.
It’s about quality time with God.
I’m struck by how intimate this passage is. As I read, I find each paragraph drawing my attention progressively away from myself and close to God, where I’m alone with him:
• Verses 1-4: Don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing …
• Verses 5-6: Go to your inner room, close the door, and pray …
• Verses 16-18: Anoint your head and wash your face, so only your Father, who is hidden, will know.
Planning for Lent
Come to think of it, all three of the things we do in Lent are ways to grow in our relationship to God, and we can take that into account as we plan how to do them:
1. What is prayer, but a drawing close of our hearts to his?
—Ask yourself: How can I add more quality time with the Lord into the next 40 days?
2. What is fasting, but a self-emptying in order to be filled by him?
—Ask yourself: What am I attached to that I can fast from in Lent, in order to make a space for yearning for God?
3. What is giving, but a recognition that all comes from God – and a sharing of him with others?
—Ask yourself: What have I received, and how can I give of that to others?
Let’s get closer to God this Lent by aiming our prayer and fasting and alms-giving to him.
© 2020 Sarah Christmyer