A Provocation: Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

6:2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,

6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;

6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

A Question or Two:

  • What, exactly, is the reward that religious play-actors have already received?  That may seem like a too-easy question, but think about it: What, EXACTLY, is the reward?  How do they receive it?
  • Does that mean that you might have missed noticing people who were, in fact, deeply faithful?  Why did you miss them, exactly?

Some Longer Reflections:

My Provocation for Ash Wednesday is excerpted from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  Amazon appears to have sold out of the book, but you can order it from The Pilgrim Press at www.uccresources.com.

Ritual text: The Life of the Worshiping Community

Ash Wednesday enters the traditional spiral of the Christian community’s exploration of its texts and truths as the beginning of a long exercise in honesty and integrity.  This long exercise prepares the way for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.  It begins with honest and patient reflection on the real failures that haunt human lives.  There are things we have done that we ought not to have done.  There are things we have avoided that we ought not to have avoided.  There is damage that we need to repair.  This repair work requires honesty and integrity, and it begins with Ash Wednesday.  In communities that celebrate this day in its traditional form, the Ash Wednesday ritual involves an extensive confession of sin.  This confession is unique because of its length and detail.  It is also unique because it is the only act of confession in the traditional spiral that is not immediately answered with an act of absolution, an enactment of forgiveness.

This ritual structure needs to be carefully understood.  Absolution is not omitted because of some sadistic desire to crush and control worshipers.  Such a theological offense has no part in the ritual spiral.  In fact, absolution is not withheld at all.  As in all traditional rituals, forgiveness is enacted immediately following the completion of the act of repentance, but this service of confession is not completed until Maundy Thursday.  Lent, this season of honesty and integrity, is a ritual of careful and patient confession, from beginning to end.  Ash Wednesday begins the work of repairing damage, but this work does not end until the community is on the very edge of Easter, moments before the crucifixion, only days from the celebration of the resurrection.  Before a traditional community can productively explore Jesus’ death and resurrection, we need to be carefully honest.  

The scene from Matthew helps in this practice of honesty.  

Intra-Text: The World of Matthew’s Story

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is echoed in the Sermon on the Temple Mount (Matthew 21-23).  This echoing is part of the way Matthew’s story holds together.  Scenes are doubled, sometimes almost exactly.  Themes are reproduced and reconsidered.  Parts of the story are linked together so that perspectives can be clarified and complicated.  And around the whole story is the link between the promise given on the mountain at the end, that Jesus will be “with them” (whatever that means, exactly) and the name given to Jesus at the beginning of the story: Emmanuel.  The surprise of the resurrection is tied back to the shock of naming the fugitive from Herod’s murderous campaign “God-Is-With-Us.”  This embracing of the story by “God-Is-With-Us” is tied back to the scene for Ash Wednesday because of the mountain on which it takes place.  

The pattern of link and crosslink is tangled, and may not simplify to anything that settles down to one scheme, but the links do tie things together.  For instance, just before this scene in chapter 6 Jesus gives instructions regarding swearing on the Temple.  (“Don’t do it,” he says.)  In chapter 23 he also deals with the matter of swearing as it touches the Temple.  In that case he does not forbid swearing with the Temple as witness, but blasts those who would assign greater weight to the gold in the Temple or to the gifts on the altar than to the Temple and the altar themselves.  The scenes are not identical, and their bite is different, but both “Mountain Sermons” pick up the theme of swearing as it touches the Temple.  

Further, immediately after the scene for Ash Wednesday Jesus addresses the matter of an eye that is “worthless.”  It is not altogether clear what he might mean in this cryptic saying (verses 22f), but it appears that he is using physical blindness as a metaphor for other kinds of inability to perceive.  This would link this scene, at least by thematic similarity, to the doubled healing of 2 blind people (chapters 9 and 20) and to the reported healings of other blind people (chapters 11, 15, and 21).  This all would be linked, as well, to the doubled blasting of those Jesus calls “blind guides” (chapters 15 and 23).  In all of this talk about blindness, however, there is only one other scene that mentions an eye that is “worthless”, and that occurs in chapter 20.  Here it is not physical blindness at all that is being referred to.  Here, a “worthless eye” leads workers to resent a landowner who pays his workers unevenly.  Those who work long hours in the sun are paid the same as those who work only a single hour at the end of the day.  How does seeing things for what they are make an eye worthless?  It is a good question.  These patterns of linkage are also complicated and tangled, but they tie this theme in the Sermon on the Mount to the whole flow of the developing story up to the Sermon on the Temple Mount.  

Perhaps the surest link in all of this is the one established in the scene assigned to Ash Wednesday, because it picks up seeing and being seen and links it to role-playing.  This also is a theme that is echoed in Matthew’s story.  It comes back in chapter 7, and in 15, and in 23, where it is explored relentlessly.  Once again the Sermon on the Mount is linked to the Sermon on the Temple Mount.  Once again seeing and being seen is linked to the charge that the guides are blind.  There is something here to follow carefully.

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