Year B, Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6 February 14, 2018
One of the biggest criticisms of Christians is that we are hypocrites. We say one thing and we do another. We act one way in church and then an entirely different way when we are out of church. We claim to love everyone, but we don’t treat everyone the same way. These are just some of the accusations that I have heard lobbed at Christians as a whole. I am always tempted to defend Christians or claim that we Episcopalians are different, but I know that won’t help. That’s what hypocrites do…deny their hypocrisy.
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 some 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 Pharisee and scribes 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 closest to God. While these actions should have made them closer to God, they were too focused on impressing their peers.
As much as I may want to judge these Pharisees and pretend that I am not at all like them, I am not sure I can. How many of us wait to make sure the cashier or waiter is looking before putting money in the tip jar? How many of us get annoyed when we do not get a thank you note after giving a gift or making a donation? I am always mortified when I am in church or some assembly where they are taking an offering and I realize I have no cash to give, nor do I have a checkbook. I am not mortified because I cannot give to the cause or the charity. I am mortified because I am worried about what people around me will think. Sometimes I will even be extra thorough as I search through my purse so the person next to me will understand my predicament. I understand what it is to want people to know that you are doing good.
Ash Wednesday is a little confusing. We read a Gospel reading that specifically says that we should not try to look dismal like the people who disfigure their face when they are fasting. Do you know one of the ways they disfigured their face? They put ash on their face. After we proclaim these words of Jesus about not disfiguring our face, we put ash on everyone’s face. While it’s not a written rule, the unspoken rule is that you leave the ash on your forehead the rest of the day. It’s quite a juxtaposition.
Before we get too critical of the practice of putting ash on our heads, it’s important to know that there is biblical precedent. In the Old Testament, when people were repenting before God, one way to prove their humility was to put ash on their face. Most times this pleased God. This was seen as an appropriate gesture.
It also reminds us of our mortality. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, God told them their punishment. He listed many things and ended with, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” By putting ash on our face, we are reminded that we were created from the earth, and one day we will return to the earth. It kind of puts things in perspective.
Yet I think there is something else going on. It’s about more than repentance or our mortality. It’s about being honest about who we are. As Christians, we occasionally are hypocritical. It’s almost impossible not to be. We are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, a man who was perfect. We know we should be emulating him, but we don’t always act like Jesus. There is a lot of time we don’t act like Jesus. We aren’t perfect, but we still call ourselves Christian.
One of my favorite quotes about church is that “we are not a museum for the saints, we are a hospital for sinners.” We do not come to church because we are perfect Christians. We come to church because we know that we need help being Christian and that hearing God’s word and participating in the sacraments helps remind us of what it is to be a Christian. We might mess up as soon as we walk out, but it’s usually unintentional. By walking out of this church with ash on our foreheads, we are saying, “Yup, sometimes I am a hypocrite—but I am trying really hard not to be.”
The ashes that we put on our face expose the world to who we truly are. It’s the one time when we can freely admit that we are sinners and are in need of repentance. Everyone is covered with the same ash. We all share the same desolation, in that we are all sinners. If you feel like you always have to pretend that you are happier, smarter, more pious than you are…this is your day to expose the real you. So maybe this is hypocritical. But you know what, at least we can admit that. That is what Lent is about—a time to reflect on who we are and find ways to be closer to God.
Idea of admitting our own hypocrisy was from a sermon by Dr. Elizabeth Huwiler given on February 9, 2005 at Lutheran Theological Seminary Chapel.