Year A, Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I have often heard the liturgy (in traditions such as the Episcopal Church) compared to theater. We have a stage and props. We have a script (the BCP). We even have stage directions which we call rubrics. We have stage hands who make sure everything is in the right place and make sure our costumes are out (the Altar guild). We have a program with the cast and the different acts. Finally we have the actors, who are the acolytes, lay Eucharistic ministers choir, ushers, greeters, members of the congregation, and finally the clergy. Many people have adverse reactions to this analogy. It makes us sound insincere. I admit I had the same reaction initially. But maybe we should not be so hard on the theatre. Perhaps there are some parallels.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells us how not to be like the hypocrites. There were three things that Jews were expected to do: give alms to the poor, pray, and fast. The problem wasn’t that people were not doing those things. They were, but they were doing them for the wrong reasons. When they gave alms, they would make sure that everyone knew they were giving money to the poor. Giving lots of money provided a certain status because not only did it mean that you had a lot of money to give, but that you were exceptionally good and generous. When people prayed, they would not only do it in a public place, but they would make their prayers as long as possible, so as to appear more pious. Finally, while the Jews only have one day (the Day of Atonement) where fasting is necessary, many of the Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. They flaunted their piety by parading around in public looking dismal and hungry. Sometimes they would even whiten their face to make themselves look more pale and underfed. They wanted everyone to know that they were the holy ones, they were the ones who were close to God. While these actions should have made them closer to God, they were too focused on impressing their peers, so it didn’t really work.
All of this sounds pretty foolish to us. And it is awfully easy to sit back and judge these Pharisees. But maybe we should not be so harsh on them. Wait you say, aren’t we just agreeing with Jesus? Wasn’t Jesus the one who told us not to be like them? Are we not justified in our disdain? It’s true, Jesus did warn us not too be like the hypocrites. Yet it is not our job to ferret out the hypocrites in our midst. Jesus is telling us how we are supposed to act. It also might be helpful to know what Jesus meant when he used the word hypocrite. The literal translation of hypocrite is actor. Jesus was calling these people actors. That was his charge against them.
A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called, The Year of Living Biblically. It was by a man who spent a year living out every law of the Hebrew scriptures. He was agnostic and wanted to see if it was possible to truly follow the Bible literally. What I found most interesting was one of his conclusions. He said that he had previously thought that you changed your mind first and then your actions changed as a result. However in his experience, his mind changed as a result of his actions. For instance, one of the laws in the Hebrew scriptures is to give prayers of thanksgiving constantly. While these prayers didn’t mean anything to him when he started, by the end he found that he was more thankful as a result. The whole time, he was merely following these laws to prove a point. He was just acting them all out. Yet those actions fundamentally changed his heart.
Let’s face it. Sometimes we don’t mean every word we pray. Occasionally we come to church when we do not want to be here. Sometimes we come, just so we can get ashes on our forehead, for nostalgic reasons or so everyone knows that we went to church today. Yet there is power in these actions that is greater than any of us is aware. God is acting in us every moment and movement. Sure it would be better if we meant every word and our minds never wandered while in prayer. But until we all reach that state of perfection, perhaps acting isn’t so bad. The important thing is that our hearts remain open to the actions of the spirit, that even when we don’t want to pray because we really are not that thankful, we still do it. And we do it not because of what we want other people to see in us, but because of what we see in God. Someday, we might just lose ourselves in the action and realize that maybe it meant something all along.