“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.”
It is not often that we receive the word of Christ so bluntly. It is a rare occasion that we do not receive instruction, which is veiled in parables and vague references. But today we receive Christ’s teaching directly with clarity and efficiency. Do not practice your piety for others to see, do not sound the trumpet when you give alms, do not pray so that others might think you are holy, do not show your suffering when you fast, and do not store up your earthly treasures such that the world covets and steals what you have. Focus your heart on the thing that matters. Powerful words for a powerful day.
Today we are to reflect on our mortality, on our frailty, on our humanity. Today we are reminded that nothing in life is guaranteed, that we are but dust in the end, and in the beginning. We are all dust, in an endless cycle of being breathed into life and being ground into death. So it is particularly fitting today that Christ warns us of false piety. For what does it matter if people see us praying or know how hard our fasting is or how much money we have if it is only for social accolades that we share that information? It is all dust, it matters not. What matters is the kind of living that does not rely on finite material to exist.
So today we also focus on what matters most in the midst of our short and frail lives. Our prayer. Our care of ourselves and each other. Our relationship with God. Our stewardship of creation. And the state of our hearts and souls. This is where the wealth of heaven resides, deep within us, churning and eagerly waiting to be spent with abandon in the world around us. Today is to focus ourselves on honoring the value of the treasure trove we have been given in baptism. The abundance of grace and love and mercy is holy currency that does not go bankrupt.
Resting in that abundance and assurance offers us hope to face the dust. And it offers us courage to acknowledge the places in our lives where we care more about the dust than the holy currencies. To put it in terms equivalent to today’s Gospel, it is not practicing piety that is the issue, it is the reason we practice the way we do that is the issue. And there is no greater test of that than the ashes you receive. So here is today’s challenge from our Gospel: if you want people to see the ashes on your forehead, you should probably wipe them off when you leave the church. And if you don’t want anyone to know you ever had ashes on your forehead, you should probably keep them on. It is in this kind of intentional spiritual practice that the dust of the world and the holy currencies of God can be reconciled.
The Rev. Sam Smith