March 1, 2006 - Year B - Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6 • 1 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. 2 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.
3 If you give something to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your gift remains really secret. Your Father who sees what is kept secret, will reward you.
5 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. 6 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.
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• 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.
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• 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.
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1. "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."
There is a place for trumpeting -- when lies are told about the poor. "...when... he tells you that the homeless man on the corner is just lazy, it's your duty to say, 'No, he's suffering from a mental illness and cannot care for himself. There is no sufficient health care to take him because of our president's tax breaks, and so that man lives in the alley because we have put him there.'
"The truth shall set you free." [from <i>Life Out of Context</i> by Walter Mosley]
2. We need to be as free as possible for action and for love. This necessitates clarity about values and treasures. This calls for practiced simplicity. Here is there is much we might learn from interfaith study. The spiritual disciplines of other traditions will help us reclaim our own traditions.
Islamic traditions often are derided in our current world. Here is a bit from them that will aid us in reflecting on this passage. You can read more from the article Purity of Intentions.
"The Arabic term riya' is roughly translated as "showing off," which means doing something to please others or to gain their approval and admiration, instead of focusing on receiving God's approval, satisfaction, and pleasure. Riya' is the opposite of the Arabic term ikhlas [purity of intention].
"According to Islam, riya' could make a pure act of worship, such as prayer, void of any reward and could even result in God's punishment.
"The Qur'an mentions this when describing the lazy state of the hypocrites as they go to prayer, dragging their feet, only so that people can see them performing prayers:
"[Surely the hypocrites strive to deceive Allah, and He shall requite their deceit to them, and when they stand up to prayer they stand up sluggishly; they do it only to be seen of men and do not remember Allah save a little.] (An-Nisaa' 4:142)
"The Qur'an also mentions riya' in respect to charity, as people sometimes pay charity to appear generous:
"[O you who believe! do not make your charity worthless by reproach and injury, like him who spends his property to be seen of men and does not believe in Allah and the last day; so his parable is as the parable of a smooth rock with earth upon it, then a heavy rain falls upon it, so it leaves it bare; they shall not be able to gain anything of what they have earned; and Allah does not guide the unbelieving people. ](Al-Baqarah 2:264)
"This means that if the intention is not sincerely to please God, then the reward for charity could be washed away just like rain washes away soil off a smooth rock, thus stopping any chance of plantation on it.
"Once Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was describing some of the signs of the Day of Judgment, one of which was the false messiah. Then he said that there was something he feared more than the false messiah, which was "hidden polytheism." Hidden polytheism is due to actions which are done for the purpose of showing off, like a person who lengthens his prayer so that people see him (As-Suyuti).
"Mentioning the attitude of riya' and how ridiculous and pompous those who have it are, the Muslim scholar Ibn Al-Jawzi related a story in one of his books. Once a man was praying in what appeared to be a devoted manner, so people praised him and commented on how righteous and sincere he was. On hearing them the man felt so proud that while he was praying he turned to them and informed them that he was also fasting."
3. It is always interesting to reflect on the intersection between "public" and "private". Just where is the line that would separate Gandhi's fasting into faith and order, religious and secular, public and private. I must admit I am not up to that sort of distinction. If our personal faith is not touching our public lives, something is out of whack. When our personal faith must be reflected in the public arena, something is even more out of whack.
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