“They have had their reward !”(Mt. 6: 2)
To whom is Jesus referring when he addresses these words?
It’s an interesting question. Undoubtedly, he had in his sights the Pharisees, whom he referred to several times in Matthew’s gospel as ‘hypocrites’ ( 23; 25-29) ) – but was it only these upholders of the Jewish law who had attracted Jesus’ wrath? Probably not, I suspect.
As an admirer of Bishop Tom Wright, until recently the bishop of Durham, and his commentaries on gospel narratives, I like to refer to his analysis of this particular passage.
Commenting on this passage in Matthew’s gospel, he prefers to refer to the ‘hypocrites’ as ‘play actors’. This way. of course, Jesus would have included many more people than only the Pharisees. Perhaps he was issuing a warning to all the hypocrites of his day, as well as ours, that when we give alms, pray or fast, we must be extremely cautious about doing it in public; in other words no play-acting to our audience, or as Jesus puts it in Matthew’s gospel, we are “ not to parade good deeds before men to attract their notice.”
Most of us, I suspect, love an audience, especially when we think we are doing “good deeds”. After all, we might persuade ourselves, what’s the point of doing good, if nobody else is aware of it? Yet here we hear a clear warning, given by Jesus, to pray in secret, to fast in secret and to donate of our worldly goods in secret.
The little bit that is omitted in the Ash Wednesday gospel (verses 7-15) is, of course, the bit where Jesus teaches his followers how to pray - the “Our Father”. How often, when we say this prayer to Our Father, do we reflect on this one-to-one conversation with God Himself. He is our only audience – the only one who matters. Any other audience is superfluous.
As people who fast, give and pray, we only require the awareness of God’s eyes and ears. The God who sees and hears all, will reward us so much better than any earthly audience. The ‘reward’ is implicit in Jesus words.
Lent is indeed a time for seeking an audience – but with God, rather than with other people. It is a time for self-examination, when we should take the opportunity to assess our lives in the light of Jesus’ teaching. And it is a time for recognizing the need we all have for repentance and reconciliation.
Pope Francis, in his Lenten message to the world, reminds us that Lent is “a fitting time for self-denial” and asks us to “ bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution,… by imitating Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty.” The concept of true poverty as exercised by Christ is one that we can all imitate in our lives, even in the privacy of our homes
Living in an world where expressions like ‘self-denial and self-sacrifice’ have given way to a more familiar hedonistic terminology, like self-gratification, self-satisfaction and self-indulgence, it is so easy to fall into the trap of putting self at the centre of our lives when we should be striving to put Christ at the centre.
‘Memento Homo’! The old Ash Wednesday liturgy always included this reminder that one day we shall all return to the dust from which we came. Was there ever a more sobering thought than this?
This day, when we come to church to have blessed ashes applied to our foreheads as a sign of repentance, is a suitable preparation for the 40 days of Lent. But perhaps the most significant message we can read into Jesus’ words is that that we must “be careful” if we seek only the awareness of our fellow human beings for our good deeds.