Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Today we begin the season of Lent, a season of penitence and fasting, assured of God’s forgiveness.
But today’s gospel reading is not primarily about prayer and fasting. These are the examples Jesus uses, but his main point is, “beware of practising your piety before others.” So Jesus’ teaching is firstly a warning against the temptation to show off.
His warning comes with colourful illustrations: Hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets, who makes a noisy show of giving money and of prayer, and make sure it is obvious in their grimacing faces when they are fasting. These examples seem to be a dig at Jewish religious leaders – he may have had characters in mind, whom his audience would have recognised, but they are lost to us now. As on many other occasions, Jesus attacks those who seem most earnestly to be following the Jewish law, but instead corrupt it by their vanity and bad faith. Jesus offers an alternative which is understood by Matthew as the true fulfilment of that law.
This trap of bad faith, of trying really hard but for the wrong reasons, is just as relevant today. Some economists would argue that most of our supposedly self-less acts are rooted in self-interest. Faced with Jesus’s scary warning, there is a danger we double-down on our desire for holiness: Not only do I need to work really hard at being holy, at disciplining my selfish desires, but should I succeed I then need to work just as hard at keeping my efforts secret, at beating down the urge to pious vanity and self-display.
This is not the way Jesus advocates, this cannot be life in all its fullness? So we come back to the introduction to today’s Ash Wednesday service, which grounds our penitence in assurance of forgiveness. An assurance of forgiveness that was in doubt in the minds of those priests in our reading from Joel, who did not know whether God would turn and relent. An assurance of forgiveness we have been given, made clear to us in the incarnation and self-giving of Jesus and in his resurrection.
And forgiveness here is more than selectively releasing us from individual acts of sinfulness. It was in his re-imagining of forgiveness, demonstrated also in acts of healing, that Jesus most scandalised the religious authorities of his day.
The catholic writer James Alison puts it well: In Jesus’ teaching sin is no longer a defect, leading to the exclusion of the one bearing the defect, but the act of exclusion itself.
We are forgiven, which means that we are embraced by God, never excluded – brought near while we were yet far off.
So our penitence is perhaps best grounded in a facing up to our fear of exclusion, with all the strenuously perverse, tragic and sometimes comic behaviour it produces. Our penitence is at heart a letting go. Falling, as Richard Rohr describes it, into ever deeper nets of acceptance. Our penitence then turns, so assured, to those ways in which we exclude others, individually and collectively, and deny their sacred humanity.
So, if I may make so bold, if you want to fast this Lent, great! Do so as a journey of thankfulness and discovery. If you feel a new desire to pray, then I wish for you that in prayer you find something of God’s peace and restoration of your soul. But if the red wine or the biscuits prove too irresistible, or if business of life or of mind distract you in your prayers, or if you just feel that keeping going is all you can manage in these hard times, do not be afraid. Please do not imagine for one moment that, for all our unworthiness, God will ever turn away from us.
We are accepted just as much as before, we are welcome at his table, God looks upon us and delights in our company. He asks of us only the courage and the hope to meet his gaze.
Richard Young (Rector)