By: The Rev. Amy Reumann, Director, Advocacy
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).
Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the traditional disciplines of Lent. In the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Jesus addresses these three acts of piety already well known in rabbinic teaching. Two thousand years later they continue to top the list of Lenten disciplines: refraining from certain food or drink, being more prayerful or making an extra donation to charity.
Jesus is never content to let tradition be. Just when you think you’ve got prayer, fasting and donating down, he puts his own spin on things. Fasting? Don’t complain, but put on a happy face. More prayer? Yes, please, but shut the door so no one sees you at it. Almsgiving? By all means, just don’t let anybody know. When you put your faith into action, Jesus asks you to keep it a secret. Shhhhh. Don’t let anyone know!
His “tell no one” instructions run into immediate obstacles. If this was a tall order in his day, it’s even more challenging in an age when we post, tweet and selfie our every moment. Increasingly, it seems that anything worth doing (and many things that are not) is made public on social media immediately. It follows then that if no one sees it, then why DO it?
Another implication of this text troubles me. Jesus’ admonition to act out piety in secret has helped reinforce the unfortunate belief that acts of faith belong in the private sphere of life. Prayer, fasting, charity and anything else that has to do with living our faith gets defined as a personal matter between me and God, to the point where a public faith may be denounced as going against Jesus’ own instructions.
Applied too broadly, this interpretation can implant a spirit of timidity that makes Lutherans reticent to speak their faith in public. It dampens our efforts to offer public testimony in the two ways that matter most: the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbor and by witness to Christ through advocacy that lifts up a faithful voice with and on behalf of our neighbor’s needs.
But what if we are not the center of what’s going on in Matthew 6? What if the word on Ash Wednesday, before it is a warning against being spiritual show-offs, is a theological statement about the God who “sees in secret”? This is the God who sees the best and the worst that we have to offer and still showers us with grace and mercy. This God offers us a promise: Our most holy actions won’t save us but neither will our most cowardly or selfish condemn us. God knows our secrets, including that we are often afraid to speak out as witnesses to Christ, but calls us nonetheless and promises to give us the words when we need them.
Martin Luther famously said, “God doesn’t want our good works. But our neighbor does.” He didn’t keep silent in the face of injustice but wrote hundreds of letters advocating for compassionate policies and structural change. He taught that faith is not a secret but a mystery about a God who sees, loves, forgives, heals our sin sick souls, and as a consequence, we are called to do the same, particularly on behalf of the people and the places that are broken and hurting.
Of course, inner disciplines nurture and ground our outward witness. We need both. But if Lent, more than any other time of the Christian calendar, asks us to tend to and focus on our own sin, confession and renewal, how much more could it become a time for nurturing the same practices in public?
What if this Lent we fasted from inwardly focused piety to outwardly motivated action, from prayer in private to public lament and truth-telling, from almsgiving that that goes beyond charity to raising of voices and action for greater justice?
It’s strange that we kick off Lent marked by ashes as an external sign of faith, but can spend the season focused only on internal attitudes. How about living Lent out loud this year? The leaders of your ELCA advocacy ministries will accompany you through the next weeks with blog posts and alerts to point to the places where we can and are moving as church together from private to public, from self-regard to neighbor-love, from focus on individual sin to calling out societal transgressions, from secret faith to public proclamation of the hope that comes at Easter. I wish you a blessed and holy Lent.
Our ELCA Advocacy initiatives are made possible through support from ELCA World Hunger. As we enter the season of Lent, register yourself or your congregation for ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving! to ensure that we can continue to work for systemic change that truly supports our brothers and sisters facing poverty and hunger.