Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) commands the Israelites to love the Lord their God with heart, soul, and might. The object of their devotion is to be to God and God alone. All good deeds done are measured by motivation. Are they done as a desire to please God with heart, soul, and might, with one’s whole being, or to please others and oneself? There are only two choices.
The Gospels play out the tension between these choices in Jesus’ interaction with the “righteous” of Israel, particularly the sect of Pharisees whose zealousness for the law was commendable at face value, but whose practical expression often fell to petty legalism, arrogant self-righteousness, and even self-aggrandizement.
Luke records a parable of Jesus in chapter 18 of his gospel that highlights the distinct differences between the person pursuing outward righteousness while the heart is hard and the person pursuing inward righteousness because the heart is repentant. In this parable, the players, respectively, are the Pharisee and the tax collector. One acts self-righteously and is justified in his own eyes while the other humbles himself and begs for mercy and thus receives the favor of the Lord.
In his seven woes to the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23, Jesus says, “they preach but do not practice” (v. 4) and “they do all their deeds to be seen by others,” (v. 5). He declares them “hypocrites” (23:13ff).
Donald Hagner in the Word Biblical Commentary on Matthew 6 says that the word for hypocrites, ὑποκριταὶ (used as the negative example in each of Jesus’ teachings on how one is to give, to pray, and to fast) was the word for “actor” in Hellenistic Greek, “one who performs in front of others, pretending to be something he or she is not” (Hagner, 139).
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Jesus observes. He watches the movement of the “religious actors” in the streets and the synagogues. He can discern the bogus from the bonafide expressions of devotion (see Mark 12:42 and its parallel Luke 21:2 on his observation of the bonafide gift of the poor widow). He rips apart any misconceptions about religious practices and their impulses in his teaching on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
It is an actor who sounds the trumpets when their coins fall into the temple chests.
It is an actor who stands in the middle of the street and the assembly, volubly proclaiming their pronouncements to God for all to hear.
It is an actor who disfigures their face so all might see the painful distortion of their fast.
The hypocritical actors, experts at pretense, make themselves appear to be something which they are not so that they might gain the approval and praise of the community.
Jesus says that those who stage this outward religion have received their reward, the praise of the crowd.
This does not please God. God desires us to express our love for him with heart, soul, and might ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ·, in secret.
When one gives, without their left hand knowing what their right hand is doing; when one prays behind closed doors in private; when one fasts, with freshly washed face, then the heart’s devotion is revealed. God is the heart, soul, and might of their love and He will reward them in the future. They may very well not reap the rewards of instant gratification from the adulation of the crowd, but they can anticipate God’s approval which is beyond any human accolade.
Following Jesus’ corrective on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, the lectionary gospel reading for Ash Wednesday turns to Jesus’ charge to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth (vv. 19-21).
Jesus declares that the location of one’s heart will reveal the treasure which they prize above all, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (v. 21).
When we give to be seen, pray to be heard, fast to be noticed, or accumulate material abundance beyond measure, we disclose the place of our treasure and of our hearts. We act out of our true desire, to be recognized by others, to experience our personal pleasure, and in that we have received our reward.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
Lent is a time to fast from that which distracts us from knowing and experiencing God. It is a time to reflect on both our human frailty and depravity.
Ash Wednesday, the starting line of Lent, reminds us that the road of life passes through the valley of the shadow of death when we are marked with the ashes. But, their crossly shape proclaims the Lord’s presence with us. This day also manifests the culpability of our hearts in fashioning a religious devotion that is woefully me-focused rather than God-focused.
In our Ash Wednesday lectionary texts, the prophet Joel summons us to return with all our hearts to God. The son of Amoz describes a fast that God desires of his people, “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Our fast is to feed the hungry, give the homeless shelter, and cover the naked. The Psalmist calls us to confess and submit ourselves to the holy God who purifies and cleanses the wayward heart.
Angle for Preaching:
Preachers may take this time to challenge people to self-examination. What is it that our hearts treasure? What motivates us to act religiously and devoutly? Is it duty, approval, guilt, to please people, or something else other than God? What masks do we wear on the stage of life that obscure our true intentions? What might it look like to enter the secret places of devotion that bring pleasure to God, to take off our masks and come as we are expectantly devoted to the God who gives us light and life, with the entirety of heart, soul, and might?
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
God bestows more consideration on the purity of the intention with which our actions are performed than on the actions themselves.
Augustine of Hippo
A man is being tailgated by a woman who is in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes. The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures.
While she is mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman. He invites her out of the car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell. After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her her personal effects, saying, “I’m very sorry for the mistake ma’am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language. I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday School’ window sign, the Christian fish emblem on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car.”
The world gets pretty tired of people who have Christian bumper stickers on their cars, Christian fish signs on their trunks, Christian books on their shelves, Christian stations on their radios, Christian jewelry around their necks, Christian videos for their kids, and Christian magazines for their coffee tables but don’t actually have the life of Jesus in their bones or the love of Jesus in their hearts.