Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-21

by Daniel Harrell

The light of Epiphany gives way to the more murky hues of Lent tonight. Just a few verses prior to these I’ve read from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his followers they are the light of the world. “Let your light shine before others,” he said, “so they may see your good works and give glory to God.” Only now Jesus cautions against being too obvious about it. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” he warns. “Do it all in secret, and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” While this is a huge relief for those of you for whom public displays of Christian devotion generate alarming awkwardness, it does seem contradictory. Do we shine our light for others to see or keep it on a dimmer switch?

It may be helpful to view these twin injunctions as counter-balancing rather than contradictory. The concern is over who gets the glory. In Matthew 5, Jesus encourages you to let your good deeds glow so people may give glory to God from whom all blessings flow. This works fine as long as you recognize God as source for your goodness and see yourself as the apostle Paul describes; namely, as “having been crucified with Christ such that I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” Danger lurks if in doing good you feel entitled to your own glory. Early Christians filed such entitlement under the category of vainglory, the deadly sin of doing the right things but with the wrong reason. With vainglory, you dutifully follow what God demands, only you’re irritated when nobody notices and gives you credit for being such a good person.

Motivation matters, which is why Jesus is always so concerned with our hearts. The Judaism of his day came equipped with disciplines designed to guard against sins like vainglory. These disciplines became disciplines for Christian Lent. Giving to the poor fosters generosity and kindness, pulling your focus away from yourself for the sake of loving and serving others. Generosity reminds your heart of God’s generosity; we give because God so lavishly gives to us. Fasting fosters self-control through self-denial. By subjugating your bodily desires to spiritual ends, you rein in your selfishness and better resist those worldly distractions and temptations that obstruct love. Prayer is holy communication, the primary means whereby we connect to God’s presence in our lives. My wife, Dawn, writes extensively on prayer and prays a lot too—since she lives with me. She says,“I attempt to sit still with God, realizing that I can neither pray God into answering me, nor into answering me as I choose. I am obliged to acknowledge that God is Other; he transcends my understanding. What I know of God, I know because he has revealed himself to me. I want to learn to praise the Lord as Other, rather than as an outgrowth of my needs.”

Human nature being what it is, Jesus warns here in Matthew 6 how giving, fasting and prayer—designed to guard our hearts—can nevertheless be corrupted by our hearts. Thus a prayer ascribed to an African schoolgirl asks of the Lord, “light a candle in my heart, that I may see what is therein, and sweep the rubbish from thy dwelling place.” Add to the disciplines of Lent the discipline of self-suspicion.

I’d like to think with you specifically about prayer this evening mostly because prayer is so central to our relationship with Christ, but also because I find prayer so hard to do. I find giving and fasting hard to do too, but at least they’re more tangible. You can see the results of giving and feel the results of fasting, but this is not always so with prayer. My mind wanders when I pray. I get impatient. I doubt. I don’t get the answers I want. People will tell me this is because I don’t have enough faith. And that’s true, but at least with less faith you get less disappointment. I can’t tell you the number of pious people I’ve had to coax back from the edge of apostasy due to unanswered prayer. Our expectations of prayer are high, which we can blame completely on Jesus. He’s the one who said ask for anything in his name and its yours.

The trick seems to be praying in secret with the door closed. Do that “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Except that’s not always true either. It might help to know that Jesus employs a bit of hyperbole here. Given that most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, praying secretly in a room without anyone knowing would have been as difficult as your left hand not knowing what your right hand was doing when it came to giving. Likewise, few Jews deliberately prayed in the streets any more than they announced their giving by blowing trumpets. The concern, again, is what’s happening in our hearts.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells several familiar parables about prayer, each with its own lesson for the heart. The first is about a Pharisee and a tax-collector, both engaged in prayer. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself; “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The Pharisee used the language of prayer to distance himself from those to whom he felt superior, but in doing so distanced himself from God too. God was nothing but a mirror before which he could preen in self-approval. By contrast the tax-collector stood at a distance presuming divine disapproval. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and bemoaned, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We all remember who went home righteous that day.

Motivation matters when it comes to prayer, even more so than faith. So much of my praying is praying for faith. Jesus warns against praying like pagan Gentiles—idol-worshippers who babble on and on because they think they’ll be heard if they say enough words. Granted, you have to talk a lot if you’re trying to get a statue to do anything, but that pagans persisted indicates they had plenty of faith. By contrast, Jesus says, “your Father knows what you need before you ask;” the implication being that weak faith and inadequate words will do. Presuming God knows your needs even better than you do, a further implication is that sometimes God gives despite what you ask. To receive such undesired gifts from God requires we trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving parent, the concern is more for our ultimate well-being than for our immediate wishes. If the cross is any indication, not even Jesus got everything he prayed for.

Perhaps one reason the Lord doesn’t always answer prayer like you’d like is because God doesn’t want you to want what you want. God wants you to want what He wants instead—on earth as it is in heaven. Righteousness is knowing the will of the Lord and doing it. As one Puritan prayed, “Let Christ’s nature be seen in me day by day. Grant me grace to bear Your will without repining, and delight to be not only chiseled, squared, or fashioned, but separated from the old rock where I have been embedded so long, and lifted from the quarry to the upper air, where I may be built in Christ for ever.” Obedience is its own reward.

Is it sufficient? Not always. Even the most heartfelt Christians can mix their motives. We give to the poor because God gives to us, but also to assuage our guilt and because it makes us feel good about ourselves to help needy people. We fast to focus our spiritual eyesight, but also because it helps us lose weight. It’s a little trickier with prayer. Some compare it to meditation or yoga to make it seem more normal. Guideposts editor Rick Hamlin, writing in today’s New York Times, observed that “when religious norms start excluding an essential practice, it pops up elsewhere, often in a secular garb. I feel like that’s one reason meditation has boomed recently, practiced by everybody from Silicon Valley executives to kindergartners.”  The church forgot how important a regular discipline of [prayer] is, even if its flock didn’t.” Still, pray grace over your burger at McDonalds and most people will look at you crazy, even though you need grace to eat fast food. If you don’t believe me, open your eyes and watch others watch you. As holy language reserved for God’s ears, there is a kind of human foolishness about it.

Jesus tells two more parables on prayer, the first about a person who gets caught without any food in the house when an unexpected guest shows up late one night. Rather than turn his guest away (a cultural no-no according to ancient hospitality norms), he turns to prayer, which in this story takes the shape of waking up a next door neighbor who has already turned in for the night, banging on his door until the neighbor finally gets up to give him some food to share. You can imagine the annoyed neighbor screaming, “Don’t you know it’s 3 o’clock in the morning!?” Still, the annoyed neighbor gives the man bread, “not because of their friendship,” Jesus said, “but because of the man’s shameless persistence.” When it comes to prayer, what other people think doesn’t matter.

Jesus’ third parable is about a widow who begged an unscrupulous judge to justly rule against an adversary. Day and night she pled, with the judge ignoring her for awhile, until finally he said to himself, “I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is crazy and she’s making me nuts. I’m going to see that she gets her justice before she completely wears me out.” Widows occupied low rungs on middle eastern social ladders, but here Jesus portrays her as having power as if she stood at the top. If this unrighteous judge grants justice to a widow who hounded him, will not the righteous God grant justice to the weakest and least who pray to Him? Prayer sets us all on level ground before God.

As with the humiliated tax-collector, prayer rids us of our pretense by drawing us down to our constant need for God’s mercy. As with the panicked neighbor, prayer inserts itself into the anxiety and problems of everyday life. As with the persistent widow, prayer levels the ground, giving all equal access to God’s ear. When prayer disappoints, God invites us into a deeper trust. Unlike the unrighteous judge, God remains our heavenly Father who as a passionate mother loves us unto death, delighting to give what we truly need, even if it’s not yet what we truly want.

“We have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote, which was never what we wanted. But without it, we never get the life we need. Ashes remind us we’re nothing but dust and to dust we will return. Our lives are very short. But shaped by the cross, the dust of death can become the good soil of everlasting life, the last and best answer to prayer.