Does it ever strike you as a bit incongruous that we mark ourselves publicly with ash in the shape of a cross on our foreheads when the Gospel lesson from Matthew says to do all our acts of piety in secret? My thought is that there had to be several other lessons in the Gospels that would have allowed the liturgy without condemning the practice. I see by a couple nods that I am not the only one who has had that thought. We read that we should not make a show of our fasting and prayer, and then we mark ourselves. Why? Why would the Church ignore Jesus’ teachings so blatantly?
I suppose the real focus in this passage ought to be on the difference between the real worshipper of God and the true disciple. Jesus spends some significant time in this passage, but throughout Matthew’s Gospel, talking about those who make an outward show of righteousness while their hearts are anything but. Matthew uses a famous word in this passage. Actually, he uses the word some thirteen of the seventeen times it is found in the New Testament. The word is hypocrite. I know, today it is an unsavory word. We think of hypocrites as bad people; nobody wants to be judged a hypocrite. In the Greek culture, however, the term was used to describe the actors in the plays. Part of the difficulty was that there were so few “professional” actors. Playwrights would compose scenes in which only three or four actors might be necessary at a time. During a break, the same actors would become a different character. In particular, actors on the Athenian Broadway would place masks over their faces to show the audience which character they were portraying. Naturally, the actor was expected to act like the character on the mask, rather than himself (sorry, ladies, there were no actresses in these days). Some interpretation by the actors was expected, but the mask is what helped the audience remember who the actor was playing at that moment. Imagine Johnny Depp playing a half dozen characters in Pirates of the Caribbean. How would we ever tell which character he was playing at any given moment? For us, Johnny Depp is Jack Sparrow, not another pirate, nor a British Marine, nor a civilian. For the Greeks, this problem was solved by use of the mask. The mask told the audience who the character was, even if the underlying acting was bad. So, here is Jesus comparing the acts of the Pharisees to hypocrites. Why?
Those whom Jesus condemns in this passage are simply acting. He speaks specifically of three acts of righteousness which were incumbent upon those who claimed to worship God. Jesus notes that when giving to the poor, some would call attention to their giving. Essentially, the Pharisee/hypocrite would put on a mask and shout “over here, I am playing a generous to the poor person today!” When praying, the Pharisee/hypocrite would put on a mask and shout “are not my words spiritual and religious and flowing? God cannot help but lend an ear to my voice!” When fasting, the Pharisee/hypocrites would call attention to their behavior by putting on a mask that said “look at me and how I suffer for God. Are you not impressed?” You see, the hypocrites of whom Jesus spoke were engaged in a performance for an audience. They hoped that those around them would be impressed by their generosity, their fancy words, their willingness to suffer for God and judge them holy.
The problem, of course, is that God sees into our hearts. Those who were giving for show, praying for show, and suffering for show did not impress God. In fact, it angered Him. God expected His people to live righteously for real. Righteousness was not meant to be a mask that was worn at certain times of the year, like Christmas and Easter today. Righteousness was supposed to describe His people all the time, in all their dealings, and most especially in their hearts. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In many ways, the human response to God has not changed much, has it? People still like to make a show of being righteous, but their hearts are far from Him. Where is your heart? I suppose that our ashes might serve as a good judge of how people see us. When you head back to work, head out to eat with your group, head home to your family with ashes on your head today, how will those in your life react? Will they nod, not at all surprised that you had ashes imposed this day? Or will they raise an eyebrow in or give voice to their surprise? You are a Christian?
Brothers and sisters, Lent is not about judgment or about suffering or about these outward signs of which we speak. Lent, in truth, is a reminder that we need to keep our hearts focused on God. But it is an acknowledgment that we need His grace in order to do just that! Had He not been willing to die for our sins, and had He not been willing to send us the Holy Spirit to lead us into righteousness, we would have remained estranged, at enmity with Him. We would be like horrible actors, wearing masks, pretending to be righteous while rotting in our cores. That cross of ash that I will place on your head in a moment reminds us of that truth. It slips through the veneer of our lives, it brushes aside the ego of our psyche, it pierces the masks we all wear when facing the world, and reminds us from whence we came and where we are headed. We came from dust. We will return to dust. The season of Lent reminds us that we should intentionally take stock of our own spiritual inventory and discern where we are actors rather than disciples. Better still, even if we discern that we are more Oscar worthy actors than cross-bearing disciples, we still stand not yet condemned. Such is His mercy that He would have us simply repent of the acting and pray for the empowering holiness that is made possible only through His death and Resurrection, and begin again as His disciple. Lent truly is a season that reminds us of pardon and absolution!
Brothers and sisters, our Lord calls you this day, as He does each and every day of all our lives, to quit acting, to quit dying, and start living, that your story many not end in dust, but glory everlasting . . .