New Testament Reading following Ash Wednesday

“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:16-21 (CEB)

'Tragedy and Comedy' photo (c) 2012, Tim Green - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Trying to insult a Christian can be a difficult endeavor. There are so many verses we often have memorized to combat insults that may be flung in our general direction. Call a Christian stupid and they may quote you “God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise.” Tell a Christian they can’t sing and you might hear about the Psalms that mention “make a joyful noise.” Tell a Christian they dance like Elaine on Seinfeld and they may throw out “David, dressed in a linen priestly vest, danced with all his strength before the Lord.” However, if you really want to insult a Christian you do not have to look much farther than this verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

Call them a hypocrite.

Call a Christian a hypocrite and you may crush them. You know that old image of an angel whispering in one ear and a demon whispering in the other? I think for many Christians the demon is whispering what an awful, horrible hypocrite they are and the angel is trying to convince them that they are not. We Christians are so afraid of being called out as a fraud saying one thing and doing the other. I know I have worried about this more times that I care to admit. This can be especially tough during Lent because we choose to give some things up and try to focus more of our time on spiritual disciplines. What if somebody actually saw through all that and knew what was going on in my heart and mind? Would they, could they, call me a hypocrite?

Thankfully, Jesus gives us some advice by using an analogy with a very familiar scene in his time. We get our word hypocrite from the Greek language. In Greek the word hypokrites referred to someone who was an actor or pretender often on stage or in some kind of performance. Plays and performances were huge in ancient Greece and Rome and many of the amphitheaters and coliseums built to stage them still stand today. In this verse, Jesus is warning against fasting like someone performing on a stage. Putting on a big show, over-exaggerating and embellishing every detail in order to make a bigger impact. Think about the old Batman television show where the words “POW” and “BANG” would flash on the screen anytime Batman or Robin punched a bad guy. Or, like any movie directed by Michael Bay where the sound effects are loud, the explosions over-the-top and we’re fooled into thinking that Shia LaBoeuf is a competent actor. I think this is more what Jesus is warning against. Exaggerating as if acting for an audience, in order to seek applause and acclaim.

I like applause and acclaim. I would be lying if I did not admit that after speaking to an audience that I did not enjoy or even need to hear from others how well I did. Heck, after posting this I’m sure I’ll go back and check regularly to see how may people “Liked” it, shared it or commented on it. It feels nice to be affirmed in that way and inherently there is nothing wrong with encouraging and affirming words.

Where things can get sticky is when our acts of faith and spiritual disciplines are done with an eye towards recognition, an ear listening for the applause and a hand prematurely extended for a reward. The issue with hypocrisy is not so much saying one thing and doing another (although that is a part of it), but rather putting on a show in order to be recognized and rewarded. People who perform their spiritual disciplines for the sake of recognition are judged by Jesus when he says, ” I assure you that they have their reward.” If you want applause, acclaim and affirmation, then that’s what you’ll get. However, remember that applause fades and words of affirmation can be forgotten.

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.”

With Lent this can be difficult because we are encouraged to do certain actions. Fasting, wearing ash crosses and giving up something to make more space for spiritual disciplines in our lives can quickly devolve into simply feeling like a performance. However, I think that Jesus’ instruction to “brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people,” has a much deeper meaning than to simply look normal and act like nothing is happening.

The actions we perform rarely transform or determine who we are on the inside. Rather, it’s who we are on the inside that will ultimately transform and determine our actions.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Matthew 23:25-26

If the inside of the cup is clean, what goes in will come out clean and reflect the integrity of the cup. If only the outside of the cup is clean, what goes in will be distorted and changed and not faithfully reflect what the cup looks like on the outside. If we have allowed the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds, there should be no acting, performance or hypocrisy involved. Whatever actions we do will be informed by the Holy Spirit in our lives. Brushing your hair, washing your face and simply being normal then is being who the Holy Spirit has transformed us into.

When we have this perspective, when we realize it’s the Holy Spirit working in us and not concern ourselves with acting the part the season of Lent can truly come into focus. Lent is not about us or about what we give up. Lent calls us to lessen the focus on ourselves by intentionally putting our own wants and needs aside in order to grow closer to God, become more like Christ and gain a sharper focus on the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Unlike the actors and hypocrites in Jesus’ day who draw attention to themselves and desiring recognition, Lent calls us to direct our attention away from ourselves and towards God. Then, we can truly find the everlasting reward that does not grow quiet like the fading of applause.

“Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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