“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” These words begin the portion of the Sermon on the Mount in which we find our text for Ash Wednesday. In this section of the sermon, Jesus proceeds to talk about three activities that were key parts of first century Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each, he applies this truth that we are not to do righteous things in the effort to be seen by others.
Our text focuses on fasting, but before this Jesus has said, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus criticizes those who make a show of their prayer in order to be seen by others. He says that when prayer is done in this way, the only benefit a person is going to receive is the attention itself. God does not reward it.
Instead, our Lord gives the instruction, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus says that prayer should not be done to put on a show. Instead, it should be the private approach to our heavenly Father.
So what does this say about prayer outside an abortion facility? I mention this because I have encountered those who say that such action violates Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 6. Certainly, standing on a sidewalk outside an abortion facility and holding a sign while in prayer does call attention to oneself and the location where prayer is taking place. That is, after all, the reason for this action. It is intended to bear witness to God’s gift of life and the sin that is taking place at that location. The prayer offered in silence then asks for God’s rescue of children and for the end of this sin in our area and state.
Our Lord’s words don’t in fact forbid such an action. Throughout this text, the public practice of righteousness is condemned because of its motivation. A person gives alms in a way that is meant to call attention to the individual. A person prays in a way that is meant to call attention to himself or herself. What is wrong is not the public nature of the action, but the goal. When public prayer is offered to bear witness against evil and in order to ask for God’s help, there is nothing wrong with the action in itself.
In our text the Lord continues to treat this topic by saying “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus says that those who fast and make a show of it have received all the reward they are going to get in the attention itself. They should not expect any benefit from God.
Instead, he provides the instruction, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus describes a practice that seeks to hide the fasting that is being done.
The topic in this portion of our text is probably not an issue for most of us … because we don’t fast. It should, however, catch our attention that Jesus’ statement assumes we will. This is a practice that came out of the Old Testament and continued to be done by the New Testament church. It has been an important part of life for Christians during most of the history of the Church. It combines the disciplining of the body with time for prayer and study of God’s Word.
On the surface of things, Jesus words about the practice of righteousness sound easy. When you give something, don’t tell anyone. When you pray, do it in private. When you fast conceal this fact so that others don’t know. Yet at the end of our text we find words that alert us to a deeper truth.
Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Our Lord tells us not to store up earthly treasures – wealth and all that goes with it.
After all these are perishable. Our financial investments make our future seem secure … until the market tanks in a historic fashion. Our house with its beautiful kitchen and décor is a source of satisfaction – until we return from that vacation and find that a pipe burst and poured out water while we were gone.
Our Lord says that instead we are to lay up treasures in heaven. We are to give the study of God’s Word a central place in our life. We are to give of our resources in order to support the work of the Gospel, and to help those in need. We are to give prayer a key role in our daily routine. We are to do good works that serve others. These things done in faith are what God values. They demonstrate that God stands at the center of our life – that he is number one. As Jesus says at the end of our text: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our Lord deals with the state of our heart. And here we learn that simply doing things in secret does not mean that we are keeping Jesus’ word. Our heart can take pride in the money we give. It can feel self-satisfied with the piety of our spiritual life because we are going that extra mile where others are not. Yes, even praying outside an abortion facility can become an exercise in self-righteousness when our heart is not in the right place. After all, we are doing something in an important cause when many other people who are doing nothing at all.
When we look at things from this perspective we find that we all sin. It is not just that we sin in overt ways like speaking angry words and gossiping about our neighbor. We have the ability to sin even when externally we are doing the right thing. We can do these things in order to be seen by others. We can do these things in spiritual pride as we look down on others.
Our problem is a heart problem. Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” As fallen people, these are the things that are naturally inside of us.
On Ash Wednesday the church year causes us to pause and get a spiritual echocardiogram. We are forced to look inside our heart and see the sin that is present. We sin in thought, word, and deed. We sin when we do the right thing for the wrong reason. We sin because we are fallen people. There is no one who can claim otherwise. On this we are all the same. Paul told the Romans, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
God knows who we really are, even when we try to fool ourselves. God knows us, but in his mercy he also still loved us. Rather than leave us in sin and damnation, he did the unthinkable. St. Paul put it this way: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die-- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus declared about his mission, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Christ – the One who had no sin – took our sin as his own. In fact Paul can say “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus received God’s judgment in our place.
God’s judgment brought death. But death that simply ended there could not be victory over what sin produces. So on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. He raised our Lord with a body transformed so that it can never die again. He raised Jesus as the beginning of our resurrection that we will receive when he returns in glory on the Last Day.
When Jesus began his earthly ministry he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When we must face the sin in our heart, his call to us is the same: “Repent!” We do not make excuses for sin. Instead, we confess it. We confess our sin before God, and believe in the Lord who died and rose from the dead for us. We believe his word in which he declares that through baptism we have shared in his saving death. In this way we have received the kingdom of heaven – the saving reign of God.
We are God’s forgiven children who are freed to live in ways that demonstrate what God has done for us. We do not practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. Instead, we live to fulfill the words found at the beginning of the sermon when Christ said: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”