Lent is a season of awareness of sin and death and of the possibilities of new life in Jesus Christ. For many, it is also a time of increased devotion – extra prayer services, added prayer disciplines, and fasting from a certain meal, food, or other indulgence. We begin Lent with the public act of placing ashes in the shape of a cross on our foreheads as a remembrance of our own mortality.
Within this attention to devotion and discipline, we must also be aware of Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount: the dangers of sin are as close as the expression of piety to which we are called. “Beware,” Jesus says, “of practicing your piety before others. (Matthew 6:1)
Jesus assumed his disciples would fast, pray, and give alms; these were the marks of a good Jew and would have been deemed worthy of praise in both Jewish and Gentile society. They are commended also for the followers of Jesus and the church in Matthew's day. The difference for followers of Jesus was not the acts themselves but rather the motives and manner in which they were to be carried out.
Instead of being done with fanfare that would attract attention and admiration from other people, these deeds were to be done modestly and in secret. In that way they became a challenge to the “honor” and competition, the desire to be seen and rewarded that characterized Roman society and that Matthew accuses the local synagogue of adopting in his gospel.
What reward are we seeking in our fasting, our generosity, our busyness? Of each of the pious people Jesus describes – the almsgivers sounding their horns, the pray-ers piling up words, the fasters in ashen misery – Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” They have been recognized for the religiosity. That recognition is their reward.
The “treasures” Jesus warns against storing up on earth include not only literal treasures that can be stolen or destroyed but also the praise and honor accorded by one's culture, which can prove utterly fickle. “Treasures in heaven,” on the other hand, do not refer to reward reserved for after death, but the valuable treasures that one find in company with God and in accord with God's sovereign will. The quest for that kind of reward is what guides our devotion to God during Lent and throughout the year, as we prepare to follow Jesus in a life committed to God's reign.
With the Greatest of Hope!