In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives a lengthy discourse on how his disciples should act. In Chapter 6, he spends time explaining how disciples should give alms, how they should pray and how they should fast. These are the same three actions we focus on during Lent. Jesus ends by reminding them, and us, to focus our thoughts, words and actions on deeds that translate into the Kingdom of God.
The Three Pillars of Lent
Jesus begins by preaching about how to give alms correctly. He makes it clear that the disposition of the giver is of more importance than the actual amount given. He teaches that almsgiving should be done in a hidden way, as though only God needs to know it has happened. If alms are offered from a sincere, contrite heart, then they are acceptable to the Lord. If alms are offered as a way to promote oneself, the resulting admiration is all the reward the giver is going to get.
Jesus next moves on to teach about the appropriate way to pray. Once again, he emphasizes that this, too, should be done in a secretive way. This command is a little easier for us to understand, since we are used to thinking of prayer as a largely private, personal thing. But at the time of the gospels, it was fairly common for religious people to stand on street corners and make big displays of prayer. This was not so much to actually pray to God but was more about making a name for themselves, gaining status, and even starting to amass a following. Jesus rejects this. Prayer is about communing with God. It is not for drawing admiration and attention to oneself, away from God. Jesus often went off to pray alone, although he also prayed with others and in public.
In fact, the way Jesus prayed was so noticeable that his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. He responded by giving us the Our Father:
“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions."
After prayer, Jesus moves on to teach about fasting. He reminds his followers that they are not to look as though the world has come to an end. Once again, fasting should be a secret offering, done without fanfare, which God will notice because the “Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mt 6:18)
Moths and Rust
As we approach the end of Lent 2023, we are likely already aware of the three pillars of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. But it’s worth noting what Jesus says to his disciples after giving this teaching. He says that the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, when done with the right motive, can become more than just things that affect us and form us now. They can also have eternal ramifications. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy.” Moth is a reference to nature. Rust is a reference to time. When Jesus names these two things - moths and rust - he is reminding his listeners that eventually the great creeping vines, grasses and winds of nature and the relentless movement of time will cover over and dismiss from memory just about everything we make and build for ourselves, especially wealth and status. And of course, he’s right. Just recall the many great empires in history - Persia, Greece, Rome - whose time has come and gone. These once mighty empires have all been relegated to a few ruined structures and history books. Even the pharaohs of Egypt, who built monumental tombs to their own glory specifically so that they would always be remembered, have faded away as time marched on.
But, teaches Jesus, some acts do not fade away, even if they are done in secret and are mostly unknown on earth. Acts like prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which the Church broadly extends and calls the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, live on. In some way, the reward for performing these works is delayed. It is waiting for us in heaven. Jesus reminds us to “Store up treasures in heaven, …for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” The currency of the Kingdom of God is not wealth and status. It is a humble, contrite heart who makes offerings to God in a hidden, secret way, not seeking his or her own glory. It is this type of heart who will wait for God to repay it, even when it is difficult, not really counting the cost but being more concerned with honoring God. In fact, it is this type of heart who will make its entrance into Jerusalem this Sunday, Palm Sunday, on its way to crucifixion.
As we near the end of our Lenten journey, let’s pray with the prophet Joel and “rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to the Lord.” (Joel 2:13)
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