Wednesday in Proper 6C – June 19, 2019 – Matthew 6:1-6,16-18 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee
It’s been almost a week since I last saw you, and we’re still hearing from the “Sermon on the Mount.” Today Jesus instructs us not to practice our piety before others. He gives us three examples of what not to do, and three tips that can lead to healthier and more reverent practices.
“Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you . . . But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
“Whenever you pray, do not . . . stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that [you] may be seen by others . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door.”
“Whenever you fast, do not look dismal . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”
It never fails. Every time I hear this passage I think about stewardship and evangelism. In my own naïveté, I tend to hear Jesus’ teaching as counter to everything I have learned about sharing my faith with others and tithing 10% of my income to the church.
Jesus’ instructions about almsgiving tell us that discretion is best. He tells us not to let people see us give money. But don’t we want people to be a part of a culture of giving? If people see others give, won’t that encourage them to give, too?
Jesus also warns us against praying in public places were we will make ourselves a spectacle. But, what about not hiding our light under a bushel basket and all that? Aren’t we supposed to make our faith known?
Jesus urges us to keep our fast in a way that does not draw too much attention. But what about Ash Wednesday? Does that mean no more ashes on my forehead? Do I need to go straight home and wash them off?
No, none of that is quite right. Jesus isn’t telling us never to give, or pray, or fast in public. He’s using public examples to tell us not to do these things for the wrong reasons.
Jesus is specifically taking to task those who lord their piety over others. To hear, “Don’t do these things in public . . .” is to miss half the message. It’s more like, “Don’t do these things in public . . . for the sake of impressing other people.”
We give, pray, and fast because these things are part of a genuine, faithful response to God’s presence in our lives. Attending church only because it’s good for business is very disingenuous.
However, setting an example of responsible tithing for friends and neighbors who don’t quite understand it yet can be a very responsible Christian witness. Likewise, thanking God for your food, even in a restaurant or school cafeteria, can be a very sincere way to recognize God’s abundant grace. And fasting, no matter what the appearance of your face, can be a very meaningful and appropriate way to respond to a merciful God.
Sometimes important things need to be explained clearly. Thank God for a sermon! The Sermon on that Mount, that is, in which Jesus teaches us not to give, and pray, and fast in order to impress others, but in grateful response to God’s presence in our lives.
But wait, doing such things in response to God’s presence in our lives requires us to be aware of God’s presence in our lives in the first place. Well then, perhaps that’s where we’ll end today, at the beginning of this whole process—step one: Look for God’s activity in the world, and when you see it, name it.
Then you can be grateful and respond.