We begin Lent by acknowledging our need for repentance, mercy and forgiveness as it is proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospels.
Matthew’s Gospel reading (6:1-6, 16-21) sees Jesus continuing his extraordinary Sermon on the Mount. Jesus provides details on how we should ‘be’ as disciples, not simply focussing on what we do or say which can be seen and heard by others.
Jesus frequently talks about the need to go beyond the letter of the law into the true spirit of the intention, learning to understand our motives clearly and recognising the extent of our willingness to be transformed by God’s saving Grace. Here he focuses on three key activities, praying, fasting and being generous that should be part of our lives as disciples.
In Lent, we must think about these activities as expressions of our relationship with God, about how and why we do what we do and explore what we are deliberately ignoring. This is because as Jesus points out, we all have a long way to go in recognising our own hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy arises when we ascribe dishonest motives to our actions and words.
For example, it is hypocritical to fast, and promote it as a Lenten practice, when in fact its an opportunity to diet and be admired by others in our community for our piety.
Giving money or gifts and letting friends know; making sure our generosity is recognised – with our name on the building, the plaque on the bench, on the honour board or the grateful thanks of those who receive our bounty all ringing sweetly in our ears. Our gifting might be extra hours of volunteering, the pride we take in our expertise which we share, or our long years of service in the church or community.
We enjoy our sense of virtue when people notice our gifting and its scary how quickly we come to expect such notice.
The depth of our outrage when someone asks us to step down, take a break and our vindictive gossiping and contempt for someone who is doing tasks differently, or doing ‘our’ job, and our wish something will fail when we have not been able to continue, highlights the frequency and depth of our hypocrisy. Our anger when we are questioned about our behaviour, speaks to our own unconscious dishonesty with ourselves and God.
All such gifting provides us with opportunities to explore the level of our hypocrisy when faced with the choice of it being seen only by God.
Often out of fear we greedily and selfishly store up, accumulate and acquire things to protect ourselves and the amount of time we focus on these matters, highlights the lack of time we give to God.
Very simply, it means our priorities have become distorted and distract us away from God. Jesus points out such behaviour and desires, for recognition or wealth is simply storing up our treasures on earth. Where our treasure is, there is our heart also. The recognition by others is an immediate reward. This is not focussing on God
I ask myself, would I give, if no-one knew except God. Do I pray because I want to tell others how good I am, or do I pray because I want to tell God? Do I fast because I want to focus my heart and mind on God and be reminded of God or because I want to lose weight, or look good?
And then, my friends, the next step: how strongly do I question my answers? How much am I still deluding myself about my motives to keep my life easier and not have to think about God’s kingdom values?
I am reminded again of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount because it is the foundation for his reflections which we now ponder.
It clearly reminds us the kingdom of heaven is here, now for the poor, for those who mourn, who are persecuted, who are humble and who love God. And if our hearts, minds, bodies and souls are all orientated towards God, then the Sermon on the Mount becomes our guide and pathway, our delight and our treasure. It is our starting point and our ending.
So we need to ask ourselves: does our way of living and behaving reflect the Sermon on the Mount’s values and motives or something else as Jesus asks?
My friends, rather let us see Lent as a time to give up being selfish.
Being able to spend time with God is a deep and abiding joy, whether alone or in your company. Lent is not simply about what I can give up as an end in itself for my own benefit, but rather, an opportunity to be generous in God’s Kingdom.
The purpose of generously giving, praying and fasting enables us to see God more clearly all around us, in creation and in each other, in the ordinariness of life.
We can dare to believe again God’s creation is sufficient to provide for all of us and not just for a wealthy few; to believe and practice being a person who lives relationally in community, with my neighbours near and far, and with God sharing God’s kingdom.
This is such good news and Lent is worth reminding ourselves of this fact.
And it is in your company, by your behaviour, words and actions, where you tell me how you too see God. The God I become acquainted with through you, is the God you show me by your words and actions. What is it about God you would like to show me?
If I see a difference between what you say and the way you live, what does that tell me about your God? If I hear you speak peaceful words in the community, but know of violence in the home what does that say? If I see generous gifts widely shared, but economic abuse, greed, and selfishness, the hypocrisy is rank and unacceptable. What does your God look like? What are you trying to tell me?
We must recognise the gap which is there for all of us, between our words and actions and lean into God for help and forgiveness.
And it is an acknowledged characteristic of all humanity: we are capable of saying and believing completely contradictory things. I might well rail against the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, but then go on to vote for the person or party promoting and practicing such behaviour, because it will increase my income and clearly my own protection is more important than my neighbour. God’s kingdom values are not much in evidence.
Our blindness is profound, our lack of willingness to face this with each other and with God damages us and those around us. Hypocrisy is an abiding sin and one against which none of us is immune.
So let me emphasise again, Lent is time to give up selfishness and greed and instead, a time to be generous. And as we listened to Isaiah, we can see Jesus’s social gospel has expanded on Isaiah’s teachings, with abundant generosity, help and support with life’s burdens, easing of poverty by sharing and the providing of genuine restorative justice. Isaiah (58:1-12) said:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.
Then light will break out like the dawn, and healing springs up and the glory of God is revealed, like a spring of water which never fails.
Let us practice in God’s name, not being violent or doing things to hurt other people, either personally, communally or nationally; let us be generous and not bully and abuse with cruel gossip; let us be willing to listen, share and help without judgement and exclusion.
Let us practice faithfully together, with repentance and compassion, in the light of God’s mercy and forgiveness, listening in silence for God’s light to shine in our hearts.
God’s light, in whom there is no darkness, God’s light shining as the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds, so we might always orientate our lives towards God’s love and not to the priorities and seductions of this world as we journey with Jesus towards the cross.
May your Lenten practice be life changing.
The Lord be with you.