Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21 February 10, 2016
Every year when I come to this service, I wonder what people must think when we read this text from Matthew and then do the exact opposite. Over the years I have come up with several theories which I have shared and sometimes I have just avoided the topic all together because I am sick of talking about it. But this year I decided to come back to the drawing board and look at it with fresh eyes. I was trained in seminary to look at texts critically always considering the context not only within the Bible, but the time and place it was written. I was also trained to look at my own innate biases in regards to the text. For instance, I will almost always look for strength in women of the Bible.
I also realized at one point in seminary that I was extra sensitive about hypocrisy in the Bible…anytime the Bible seemed to contradict itself or anytime we as Christians flagrantly contradicted our core beliefs. This year, it occurred to me that I was overly preoccupied with our practice of putting ashes on our forehead after reading a Gospel which clearly states that you should not disfigure your face and to be sure to wash your face. I was worried about how it looked, how people might judge Christians as hypocrites.
Then I read a commentary that opened my eyes. The commentator reminded me that this was not meant to be taken literally. Jesus was using a tool that he often employed- that of hyperbole. He was talking about extremes. When talking about giving alms he used two examples. One was the person who blew a horn before giving money to charity. The other was the person who was so sneaky about giving, one hand did not know what the other was doing. We all know that would be impossible. Jesus was simply trying to illustrate the point that we are not to do things just for the sake of being seen by other people.
However these examples that he used (like putting oil on your head while fasting) were not meant to be new commandments or rules; they were simply examples. What Jesus was trying to emphasize was the motivation behind these actions, not the actions themselves. There is one word that comes up over and over again in these 12 verses: See or be seen. Each time Jesus uses the word, he juxtaposes two ways of being seen. The first is doing things in such a way that will ensure you are seen and recognized by other people. The other is that your Father in heaven will see you in secret. In saying that God will see you in secret, Jesus isn’t just talking about you praying in your closet to make sure no one can see you. He is pointing out that God can see your intentions.
It makes you wonder why being seen matters so much. Today it seems as though people are constantly aware of what other people are doing. You don’t need a street corner or a horn anymore if you have youtube, twitter and facebook. The point of social media is being seen. You can look at your video or post and the statistics will tell you how many people saw your post or video. And for some reason, that matters. It matters because it gives us affirmation. The more people who are seeing us, the more people who like us, the more we matter as individuals.
Why is it that we need this kind of validation and affirmation from other people when we already have that from God? Why do we seek from other people what God already gives us unconditionally and selflessly?
It goes back to the word see. We can see other people’s reactions and affirmations. We can see if they approve or disapprove and if we are so inclined, we can change our actions to get the right response. Many years ago I said something in a sermon and I got a gasp of horror in response. I made it through while maintaining my point, but I never made that point again. In not making that point again, I knew I would please the people in my congregation. I have no idea what God thought of the point because there was no audible or visual reaction from God. And that’s why it is so difficult to depend on God’s perception alone. I can tell you a million times that God loves you the way you are but it would be a lot more effective if God told you himself.
That is why we have the Bible and this community of believers (the church). We help one another understand what God wants from us. We try to emulate God’s loving kindness and we try to avoid the kind of judgment that we see so frequently in the world around us. I am going to stop worrying if the act of putting ashes on our head makes us look like hypocrites. I know why I do it, partly because of what our liturgy says. In putting on ashes, we are reminding ourselves of our mortality and our vulnerability. We are remembering that Jesus died and was resurrected for us so that we too could one day defeat death. We wear these ashes not to show everyone how holy we are, but to show people that we know that death is not the end. These ashes are temporary.
When I put the ash on your forehead, I will tell you: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we know in our hearts that we are far more than dust. Remember, it is what is in your heart that counts, not what you wear on your face. You are dust and to dust you shall return. But that is not the end of our story because God has promised us eternal life. The ash will one day come off and we will be reborn.