Once upon a time (I always wanted to start that way), I remember being young, in class and waiting for the teacher to show up while I let my eyes wander around the room. I noticed something about the girl that sat next to me.
“Hey, Elizabeth. Your forehead’s dirty.”
Elizabeth turned in my direction. “That’s ash, not dirt.”
That might have ended it for some, but I was a curious youth. “Why do you have ash on your forehead?”
“Because it is Ash Wednesday. Didn’t you go to church this morning?”
I shrugged. “No, I didn’t.” I was confused.
Sarah turned around and said, “Oh, that is so Catholic.”
Looking back, perhaps 50 years back, I understand that was a snide comment from Sarah. At the time, I didn’t know what it was all about, and could not ask because the teacher arrived. I imagine I asked plenty when I got home. “Why didn’t we go to church this morning? Am I supposed to have ashes on my forehead? It is Ash Wednesday… What is Ash Wednesday?”
I have since found out that Ash Wednesday is not a Biblical thing. It is not necessarily a Christian thing. It is a made-up churchy thing, and by no means regular in all churches. It has to do with the church’s version of ordering days and seasons, and not something the larger world recognizes. It inaugurates the church season called Lent which is a time of prayer and fasting for forty days before the celebration of Easter. At least Easter is something Biblical and Christian and which the larger world also does not especially recognize.
The question, though, is not whether Lent and Ash Wednesday (or Fat Tuesday) are made-up, but whether God might approve of these celebrations and things. The answer, at least the one we might discern from the passage from Matthew is that depends on the motive. Elizabeth’s motive was youth, innocence, family, tradition and generally wanting to do the right thing. I don’t exactly know what Sarah’s motive was. Me? I was the curious one.
That is the key word to understand the reading in Matthew.
Jesus was not saying don’t give or pray or fast in public. That is often how it has been misread. And because it has been misunderstood in that way, there are many, too many to this day that hide their light under the bushel. You know, sometimes we have to be up-front about our giving to help another take the first step in the right direction. Prayer, genuine, for example in a restaurant, can encourage others in their faith. And when you go to lunch with friends and they ask why you are not eating, be honest. Tell them about faith, dedication, whatever good or encouraging thing you can.
But now, let’s be honest. The truth is for every Leonard who won’t do a thing for the church unless they get their name and picture in the paper, there are a hundred these days in the opposite camp. A picture in the paper is the last thing they want in this “anti-Christian” cultural climate. And this passage, misread is a great excuse. But, as I said, let us be honest. What is the motivation of people who don’t want to be seen giving or fasting or praying in public? It is the same as the Pharisees. In this culture they want the approval and respect of others and of the community and any overt “Charistiany-thing” is going to get them talked about, and not in a positive way.
Jesus is saying look at your motive. Don’t make a public spectacle out of your faith, but don’t necessarily hide it either. Ask, why am I doing this? If it is for God’s glory, that is great. If it is for public approval, forget it. If it is at the urging of the Spirit, go for it, even if it is in the most public place. If it is to grow closer to God, great. If it is to encourage others or to spread and defend the faith, great again. If it is to get your name and picture in the paper (or make sure your name and picture do NOT get in the paper), forget it altogether.
Jesus summed it up well when he talked about treasure. Is God your love and joy? Is it all for him? Or is the praise and respect of your peers, your friends and family, your community what matters to you? If the first, don’t worry about whether it is public or private. Your left and right hands will both be working together for the glory of God. If it is the second, again who cares if it is public or private? The praise and respect of people is all the praise and respect you will get.
Elizabeth did not hide the ashes on her forehead, and even if her motive was not perfect, it was pointed and headed in the right direction. To this day I have no idea what Sarah’s motive was except maybe to Lord it over Elizabeth in some way. But then, I am just the curious one.