Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Submission to Modern Metanoia for Ash Wednesday.


In the past, when I have read this passage, I have struggled. I struggle with it because there’s a lot of talk about treasure and when I think about treasure, I can’t help but imagine pirates. I’m pretty sure that when Jesus was teaching on this subject, he wasn’t imagining a famous ride at a theme park or the near-billion US dollar grossing movie franchise we all know so well today. Because I’ve always loved reading sci-fi and fantasy, I also can’t help but imagine dragons when I think about treasure.

 

In both illustrations, treasure feeds greed, isolation, and ultimately death. Though we can be certain that Jesus wasn’t referring to either of these two examples, we do know that the beauty of the incarnation showed us Jesus’ complete understanding of what it is to be human. Jesus understood that if we were to seek after treasure left to our own devices, we would end up just like the pirates and dragons – greedy, isolated, and dead.

Human behavior is such that seeking after treasure seems an obvious outcome of our survival as hunters and gatherers. We see this hunger and search for treasure documented throughout history in a variety of ways, but most recently…

While we can chuckle at some of these examples, the truth is we all search for treasure. Though there is some treasure most popularly sought after by people, treasure is not necessarily universal. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

So what is the treasure that Jesus is speaking of in this passage? While Jesus completely understood what it was to be human, he also saw things with a divine perspective. This perspective found treasure where most would see trash. This perspective describes a treasure beyond our control and ownership.

The treasure that is stored up in heaven is not calculated by the worthiness of our deeds, the number of followers we acquire on social media, the net gross of our investments, or how popular we were in high school. Instead, Jesus promises a reward unmatched by the treasures we most often seek after and calculated by a very clear code of conduct that would shake up the rules of behavior that are most popularly lived by today.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The focus here is on intention and purity of purpose. Our stewardship is not for special recognition but for service and mission. Our words of faith and praise are not just entertaining click-bait or feel-good memes. Our spiritual practices are more than performance art on the street corner.

Jesus’ focus on this passage is also not about hoarding secrets, nor individualized spirituality. Instead, it is an encouragement for believers to pay attention to, what Father Richard Rohr so eloquently speaks of as, our “inner authority” (see https://cac.org/inner-authority-2017-01-22/ for more). It is in this quiet place, the hidden and secret spaces of our hearts, where we learn to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and where God truly sees us. As we practice our faith in these ways, we meet ourselves as God created us to be – God’s image reflected in our faces and lives.

Though rewards are often used as external motivators for preferred behavior, Jesus is not sharing this with his followers so they blindly do whatever he says. Jesus is showing us, in language we might understand, that there is a purpose for the way we behave in the world, and it’s not what we think. Jesus is saying that there is a reward for what we do but it is not the treasure we imagine. This treasure is so much more than a Pirate’s treasure chest or dragon’s hoard.  This treasure is, in fact, a gift and by the grace of God it is for everyone.

 

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