ASH WEDNESDAY Matthew 6:1-21

A meditation with the congregation of St. James Anglican (Episcopal), Kingston, Ontario, March 3, 1987
by Robert Brow (

A period of fasting before Easter is first mentioned in the second century, and it was later ordered as a preparation for baptism when thousands were flocking into the churches after the conversion of Constantine. Ash Wednesday traditionally became the first day of Lent, but it unfortunately gave the impression that the main part of Christian faith is feeling bad about our sins and giving up things. There will be times when we feel bad about some failure, and any kind of service for the Lord will require choosing to spend our time in one way rather than another. But I prefer to view Lent as a time of spiritual spring cleaning. We clear out the clutter in our home so we can enjoy it more and use it for what is important to us.

Three thousand years ago when the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a king to replace Saul, he was told: "The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). This is picked up in the Gospel we have just read. Jesus talks about the three duties of religion which are prescribed in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In each case, referring to almsgiving, praying, and fasting, he used the refrain "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). That means spiritual spring cleaning is a matter of clearing out the clutter of our heart. And Jesus adds that it has its own reward.

We are uneasy with the idea of rewards as if God gives Brownie points for certain kinds of behavior. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, an appropriate reward is an essential part of the activity. When a chicken lays eggs, the chicks are the reward. When we climb a mountain we enjoy the walk and the view at the top. When a couple fall in love the appropriate reward is marriage. So in spiritual spring cleaning we get our heart motives clear in relation to our giving, praying, and fasting. And the result is the reward of a happy, effective life in the service of God.

If that is the kind of reward we long for, we might begin this period of spiritual spring cleaning with three questions:

1. Who am I concerned to impress? When people fall in love, all they care about is impressing their loved one. And there is nothing wrong with that. But in matters of religion it is very easy to care more about impressing others than being a joy to God. "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1). And Jesus gave three examples of this in his day. "Whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets" (6:2). "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they like to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others" (6:5). "And whenever your fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting" (6:16). Obviously it is good to be generous, and to pray, and to live simply. What is wrong is doing these for the approval of others. "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (6:3)

2. What is my supreme value? Jesus gave us an easy way to test this. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (6:21). What do I keep longing for and rejoicing in? There again, there is nothing wrong with delighting in God's gift of a home, and food, and family and friends who love us. Nor is it wrong to enjoy our sports, and hobbies, and other interests. But this Lent we could ask ourselves whether any of these are more valuable to us than God who has so graciously made it possible for us to enjoy them. The giver is a far greater treasure than the gifts. If we can thank God for what we value, that keeps the focus on our supreme value.

3. How do I pray in secret with the Father? Jesus said "Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (6:6). Lent is a reminder for us to pray. Shutting the door and praying in secret is not possible for most people in our world. The point is that prayer is a conversation with God, and any heart to heart conversation needs to be freed from interruptions. We shut out the chatter of others and from the television. I like to talk to the Lord while I am walking or driving in the car alone. Listening to his voice needs learning the language of the Bible, and of nature around us, and sensing the heart of others. And when we can do that, what we talk about with him, and hear from him in our conversation alone, flavors and influences all we do.

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