Ash Wednesday – 2014 “And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices.”

(I am re-posting this since I do not have the resources at this time to prepare a new reflection. Please forgive me.)

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21.

“And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices.” T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

I believe that the Evangelist Matthew presents his gospel as a New Genesis. He intends to tell his story as the coming into being of a “new creation.” This new creation is not only a divine act; it inaugurates a human participation, the call to discipleship that is simultaneously a call to a missionary enterprise that reaches to the ends of the earth. 28:19-20. For this reason, I believe that Matthew constructs his entire narrative around 4:17, where Jesus begins his ministry with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is exactly the message of John the Baptist in 3:2. Jesus begins his teaching on discipleship and his call to mission in the context of the prophecy of John. I believe that in chapter 5 the “but I say to you” repeated many times, can be read against the background of “And God said” repeated many times in Genesis 1. I believe that the coming kingdom of heaven, that is, active discipleship in mission, makes it possible to live out the words of 5:48, “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is central to the theological anthropology of Matthew’s new humanity.

This last command leads directly to the next. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” therefore, “Beware of practicing your piety before men.” Piety is literally righteousness, (dikaiosune). In 3:15 Jesus tells John that this baptism “is fitting for us to fulfill all dikaiosune.” In 5:20 Jesus tells his disciples that “unless your dikaiosune exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It seems clear that righteousness or piety is a significant term for Matthew’s view of the life of discipleship. “Never” is grammatically an emphatic negation that is further evidence of how seriously Matthew believes this. People may “hunger and thirst for righteousness” with the hope and promise that “they will be satisfied.” 5:6. Piety has the character of concealedness. When it is authentic it is concealed from the public. When it is inauthentic it is open to public view. Whoever alters the concealed character of piety does not receive a reward from “your Father who is in heaven.” To make a divine gift into what it is not is the stuff of idolatry.

Piety characterizes life under grace. It is life determined by surrender to the Divine. Self-surrender is not an accomplishment of which I am capable on my own. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that empowers me to submit myself to “our Father who is in secret, and to our Father who sees in secret.” See Martin Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed. Submission, that is, faith coming to birth and casting itself forward into the void, into the secret “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” can have no expectation of reward. Piety is complete within itself. That to which I surrender and submit, the unknown, is called “our Father who is in secret” by Jesus. This is another way of saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Seen this way, “in secret” and “in heaven” intend to convey the same thing. Taken as two phrases the statements imply a Divine abode that may be thought of as our Source and Origin. The practice of piety transcends the personal and transports me to my Origin.

The content of this piety that runs through chapter 6 is presented as almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and treasures. These are the marks of an active discipleship. Each of these receives special and somewhat similar treatment that moves in the direction of a future reward when piety is practiced according to these renewed requirements. Matthew uses the Sermon on the Mount to offer his view of eschatology. Jesus is preparing his disciples for a new creation and to do that he has to point to our source and origin which has never left us and which we have not left behind. That this is so is demonstrated in 4:17 when Jesus began his preaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Piety prevails where repentance is genuine. The eschatological moment approaches and brings with it the fulfilment of promises of old. That a change is on the way is shown repeatedly in chapter 4. “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you.” Jesus is not presenting a new piety; he is restoring it to its original place, with its original meaning as a response to grace that makes the future possible. We bear within ourselves our source and origin and for this reason history becomes eschatology as what we are gives makes way for what we are becoming.

Vs. 2 – “When you give alms” literally, when you do “works of mercy.” The word used here can be a substitute for the word used earlier for “righteousness.” Vs. 2 recalls 5: 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  Mercy is its own reward. Works of mercy, or almsgiving, describe a response which is in itself intensely private. Therefore, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  Almsgiving is of such a private nature that even I must not take notice of what I am doing. The practice of works of mercy is voluntarily offering up what I have as the reality of what I am, and is therefore complete and unconditional surrender to the Divine whose abode is “secret.” Those who receive alms are often invisible, living at the margins of society, shut out of the social order by poverty, disease, or misfortune. They are completely dependent upon the benevolence, generosity, and altruism of others. They know what it is like to live by grace.

Almsgiving, knowing that the giver is also totally dependent upon the Divine, is a reaching out to others, embracing the uniqueness of grace that sustains us equally. Almsgiving transports us to that secret place, the ground immediately before the throne of grace, our hidden origin. In almsgiving, I must be as completely hidden from myself as the Divine is hidden from me. (The Lutheran understanding of God hidden and revealed is instructive here). Those who give alms unnoticed even to themselves will receive their reward. Matthew does not define that reward. I am suggesting that the reward is renewal, a call to our origin and from there the promise of a new creation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew speaks of the reward as of the future. I believe that the reward is entrance into the kingdom of heaven. That “our Father” will reward us in secret, from his secret place, indicates that the kingdom of heaven will dawn for us.

Vs. 5 – In the present context, Jesus speaks of prayer as an activity that takes place in secret, that is, out of the public view. Prayer transports us to the domain of the divine. The author of the Book of Revelation, in chapter one, was at prayer when he discovered himself in the throne-room of the divine one, “the first and the last.” Prayer does not lose sight of the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, the whence and the whereto. Consequently, prayer transcends history and dwells in the vicinity of eschatological grace. Its home is its reward, the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder if the demand for religious activity to be carried on in secret reflects the persecution of the young church. This may make sense without undermining a kind of rigorous piety known to exist in communities of faith such as at Qumran and among the disciples of John the Baptist. The young church must distinguish itself by a rigorous piety that at once sets it apart, while at the same time offering a critique of the status quo religious practices that have accommodated themselves to alien cultural values in order to survive. Matthew’s use of plural pronouns indicates that prayer is also an activity of the community. Perhaps survival depended upon solidarity.

Vs. 16 – When you fast, conceal yourself as one who is fasting. Jesus knows about fasting, having fasted forty day and nights and was left feeling hungry. 4:2. He himself gives us insight into how he dealt with his hunger in the desert. He was filled “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 4:4. Unlike the other instructions so far, this one about fasting describes a relationship within oneself rather than an activity on behalf of others. These are all instructions for self-denial and self-sacrifice. Jews fasted twice weekly, Monday and Thursday. Later, Christians fasted Monday and Friday. Jesus makes it clear that fasting is not simply an internal event, denying oneself food and drink that sustain life. It is also an outward event; one must present oneself as engaged in something quite normal and natural which does not deserve the attention of others. Fasting also indicates how Jesus understands nurture: “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Fasting is the acknowledgement that it is God who sustains life through his word. To those who fast is promised a future reward. This is again the forward movement of Matthew’s view of eschatology, the preparation of the young church for the kingdom of heaven, the new creation.

Vs. 19 – “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” This is an apt conclusion for Matthew’s presentation of piety. Matthew does not define treasures as earlier he did not define reward. He does indicate two kinds of treasures, earthly treasures that are temporary and heavenly treasures that are lasting. I am interpreting treasures as identical to reward; they are one and the same thing. In this case “treasures in heaven” refers to the undefined reward. I have interpreted reward to mean entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the call to return to our source where we find renewal in anticipation of the new creation. Treasures in heaven know that source as “heaven.” He says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Here I would like to recall 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” It appears that treasures and rewards are related to purity, piety, and in this case, the pure in heart. Such purity inherits the promise that those persons shall see God. To see God is the equivalent of the kingdom of heaven. It is by unravelling this kingdom of heaven that we gain insight into the content of Matthew’s eschatology, discipleship that reaches to the ends of the earth. “And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices!”

At Service on Ash Wednesday we will hear this theme summarized. “Remember, Christian, dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We will leave that Service knowing that our origin has not left us, and we carry within us the hope of return. Paradoxical grace?

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