February 9, 2005 - Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

6 Be careful not to make a show of your righteousness before people. If you do so, you do not gain anything from your Father in heaven. When you give something to the poor, do not have it trumpeted before you, as do those who want to be seen in the synagogues and in the streets in order to be praised by the people. I assure you, they have been already paid in full.

If you give something to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift remains really secret. Your Father who sees what is kept secret, will reward you.

When you pray, do not be like those who want to be seen. They love to stand and pray in the synagogues or on street corners to be seen by everyone. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is with you in secret; and your Father who sees what is kept secret will reward you.

•            16 When you fast, do not put on a miserable face as do the hypocrites. They put on a gloomy face, so people can see they are fasting. I tell you this: they have been paid in full already. 17 When you fast, wash your face and make yourself look cheerful, 18 because you are not fasting for appearances or for people, but for your Father who sees beyond appearances. And your Father, who sees what is kept secret will reward you.

•      19 Do not store up treasure for yourself here on earth where moth and rust destroy it, and where thieves can steal it. 20 Store up treasure for yourself with God, where no moth or rust can destroy nor thief come and steal it.

21 For where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.

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•            6.1 After the six opposites ("but I say to you"), Matthew gives us three examples of another secret without which we shall not see God: work for him alone without wanting anyone to know, and in such a way that we ourselves will have immediately forgotten what we have done.

Those who make a show. The expression appears three times with reference to good deeds, prayer and fasting. Jesus uses a word often translated as "being hypocrites," which refers in a general way to those who make a show, or who are shallow, and make fun of the things of God.

It is perhaps difficult not to want to be seen by others, but it is far more difficult to do good without looking at oneself and being satisfied because: "I am good." It is, nevertheless, the way of enabling us to enter into the secrets of God.

•            16. Here Jesus neither justifies nor condemns fasting. He himself fasted: 4:2; 9:15; 17:21. Fasting is unworthy when done to obtain human approval rather than God's.

All religions know fasting. It is a way of calling upon God, especially when great misfortunes come upon us (Jl 2:12); it befits people who feel guilty, and want to move to compassion the one who forgives them (Jon 3:5). It also teaches self-control and integrates our energies in preparation for divine communication (Ex 34:28).

Scripture puts limited emphasis on fasting. The prophets asserted that fasting without justice towards the neighbor is of no use: Is 58; Zec 7:4.

From the time of Gandhi, persons and groups have also used fasting as a means of social pressure, as a political weapon to call attention to some demands. This is all right, although it is different from the religious fast of which Jesus speaks. The difference is that a religious fast is addressed to God, not to public opinion (Mt 6:18), and it entails an inner disposition of conversion and sorrow for personal sin on the part of the fasting person.

•        19. Do not store up treasures. The Gospel says: "Do not treasure treasures," treasures meaning those savings held in reserve rather than something that is loved. For centuries the majority of human beings rarely had personal reserves: the family or the clan took charge of the reserve in times of adversity. Today each one is in charge of his own resources; it is perhaps better, but how do we escape the obsession of a secure future? Once more Jesus invites us to believe in the Providence of the Father: if we have his interests at heart, he will look after ours.

Store up with God Gospel says "in Heaven", and we know that Heaven is one of the names of God.

There also your heart will be. (In the Jewish culture the heart is where judgments and decisions are made). I do not possess things but they possess me and by degrees impose on me a certain life-style.

There also your heart will be. It is this certitude that motivates any effort made towards "evangelical poverty." It is a question of being as free as possible for action and for love. Jesus calls us to disinterested action and at the same time warns us against inordinate attachment to persons, to ideas and possessions: we are to be ready for anything but must never get attached to the fruits of action.

[The Community Christian Bible]

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1. Here are three comments about fasting from a John Wesley sermon. First, a warning about fasting; second, a connection with prayer; and, third, an extension to another action of care-giving. As you read these, reflect on why you are or are not fasting. If you are fasting, reflect on your motivation and how you connect this with other acts of piety.

 "Let us beware of mocking God, of turning our fast, as well as our prayers, into an abomination unto the Lord, by the mixture of any temporal view, particularly by seeking the praise of men. Against this our blessed Lord more peculiarly guards us in the words of the text. "Moreover when ye fast, be ye not as the hypocrites:" -- Such were too many who were called the people of God; "of a sad countenance;" sour, affectedly sad, putting their looks into a peculiar form. "For they disfigure their faces," not only by unnatural distortions, but also by covering them with dust and ashes; "that they may appear unto men to fast;" this is their chief, if not only design. "Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward;" even the admiration and praise of men. "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face:" Do as thou art accustomed to do at other times; "that thou appear not unto men to fast;" -- let this be no part of thy intention; if they know it without any desire of thine, it matters not, thou art neither the better nor the worse; -- "but unto thy Father which is in secret: And thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."

2. "And with fasting let us always join fervent prayer, pouring out our whole souls before God, confessing our sins with all their aggravations, humbling ourselves under his mighty hand, laying open before him all our wants, all our guiltiness and helplessness. This is a season for enlarging our prayers, both in behalf of ourselves and of our brethren. Let us now bewail the sins of our people; and cry aloud for the city of our God, that the Lord may build up Zion, and cause his face to shine on her desolations. Thus, we may observe, the men of God, in ancient times always joined prayer and fasting together; thus the Apostles, in all the instances cited above; and thus our Lord joins them in the discourse before us."

3. "It remains only, in order to our observing such a fast as is acceptable to the Lord, that we add alms thereto; works of mercy, after our power, both to the bodies and souls of men: "With such sacrifices" also "God is well pleased." Thus the angel declares to Cornelius, fasting and praying in his house, "Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God." (Acts 10:4, &c.) And this God himself expressly and largely declares: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thy own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer: Thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. -- If, "when thou fastest, "thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon-day. And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: And thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not." (Isa. 58:6, &c.)"

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