The Ash Wednesday Gospel text seems a bit of a hodgepodge. It always does when you skip over verses and pick up themes that sort of, kind of match, but then maybe not exactly. Okay, this one maybe less than others. There is a consistency here that we admire, but then a bit of a surprise at the end, it appears.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others” is how the text begins. That seems straightforward enough. Especially when you add in the rest of the sentence – “in order to be seen by them.” Well, of course that’s a problem, Jesus, we can see that. It mutes the effect of the piety practice, even we can see that. It isn’t done for the sake of piety, but to be seen, to be admired by others. “Oh, look at how pious,” we imagine them saying. “Look at how holy, how faithful, how . . .” How what? What might we be going for here?
Sure, I understand a different age and different priorities and all, but I don’t think here in this twenty-first-century world that there is a high value placed on being seen as pious. If anything, that’s a slam against you. Or as some might say, “pious is half a word these days.” “What a pious . . . !” You fill in the blank with the appropriate nomenclature. So, perhaps the warning holds, but for different reasons. Beware of practicing your piety in public, or you’ll be considered a weirdo. Or a throwback. Or something.
And need we say something about “practicing” our piety? Even Jesus tells us we never get it right; we’re always practicing. Right? Like innumerable comedians who get a laugh from the fact that their doctors are just practicing. Ha ha. Of course, we know that while we all could be better at using the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving, practicing in this case—like with our doctor—doesn’t mean learning as much as doing.
It is the doing that is the key to these verses, it seems to me. One inclination of the warning, “beware of practicing your piety,” might be to stop doing it. After all, who can truly be pure in motivations? To make sure that we aren’t doing these things for the wrong reasons—and reasons seem to matter a whole lot to Jesus—maybe we should just avoid doing them at all. Maybe our inclination to be safe would be to avoid the practice completely. And that would, of course, be the wrong inclination, the wrong reaction. The doing of the disciplines, both the outward and inward disciplines, the ones that work on our soul and the ones that work on our community, is a given. The Lenten invitation to “observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word” (“Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline,” United Methodist Book of Worship, UMPH, 1992, 322) clearly extends a “just do it” vibe.
We can’t help but ask why, other than the discipline part, which is basically because you’re supposed to, or ought to, or were told to. That never really worked when we were kids, so why would we be content with it now? But why do we do these things, practice this piety? What happens when we do it? Or heaven forbid, we should raise this question: “What do we get out of it?” As preachers don’t you hate that question? “What’s in it for me?” If anything, this faith is designed to turn us outward, and yet we’re always asking the “me” question. It’s frustrating. On the other hand, maybe you love that question. It’s the point of contact question, the so-what question. It is finding out how my life and my practices intersect with Jesus’ life and practices. It is exploring how this faith thing gets lived out in the real world. So, why do we practice piety? I think the answer is there in the text, but maybe it is hidden in the part of the text you were going to ignore: the last three verses.
Those verses seem to be about something else – redundancy to what has gone before. But what if that is where we can find a key that just might set us on this Lenten journey with a whole new perspective – a way of storing up treasures?
First of all, self-denial seem to be about getting rid of stuff, not storing it up. And Jesus takes a hard line about stuff, don’t you think? Or does he? For all that Jesus seems bothered by stuff, he is in favor of treasures. Did you notice? He doesn’t say, “Stay away from treasure; it’s bad for your health.” No, treasuring is okay. It’s what we choose to treasure; that’s the issue. There are some treasures that aren’t worth storing up. Or piling up. Or tucking into the attic so that when you dig it out, you say with a sigh, “What were we thinking keeping this?” The stuff around here just wears out, gets stained and becomes unwearable; it rusts. Rusts? What did they have that rusted in Jesus’ day? Well, the word is “brosis” in Greek. It often refers to food that gets eaten. Consumed. Used up. Worn away until you don’t even recognize it anymore.
No, apparently there is treasure, and then there is treasure. Some treasure is worth treasuring, but some is just fit for the junk heap. How do you know? How can you tell the difference? How do we know we are saving the right things? Treasuring the right things?
Well, some say it is all about the tally sheet. You’ve got to pile up a good score in heaven. Every act of service is another star in your crown. And our goal is to get lots of stars, lots of jewels. Not to earn our place in heaven – that comes by the grace of God. No, this is about the furnishings. A better mansion, plush carpets, bigger windows, more floors. They’re building us a dwelling place out of the materials we send up from here. Some say.
I’m not convinced, frankly. Stuff is stuff. It seems that if Jesus were against too much stuff here, he would be against too much stuff there. Don’t you think? So, it doesn’t sound like the treasures Jesus wants us to treasure are more stuff, divine or otherwise.
What if our math is wrong? What if it isn’t “do this to get that”? What if the treasure isn’t the end product, the reward or the payment for our acts? What if it is the act itself? What if it is not the result of our action, but the action. What if the treasure is not something we can hold in our hands, but something we do with our hands?
In other passages, when Jesus shares this secret, he tells someone, the rich young man, “sell everything and give the money to the poor and you’ll have treasure in heaven.” We think, we get something; when we get to heaven, there will be something there because we’ve done this great thing. Maybe not. He says, “do this and you will have.” Go and sell and you will have your treasure. In the selling and giving. That’s the treasure. That’s the gift. That’s the blessing. The doing.
“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Live your life in such a way that you know the blessing every day. Live your life so that you are treasuring what lasts into eternity. That’s what Jesus is trying to point out to us. Some treasure is eaten away, and some treasure lasts, and nothing in this world can take it away. An act of kindness lives forever. Love lived out lasts forever. Goodness outlasts bitterness. Joy endures, while despair fades. An act of generosity is treasured into eternity.
Yeah, it’s scary to cast off the stuff that defined a life or seemed to do so, anyway. That is a loss, to be sure. But what cannot be lost are all the moments we’ve treasured together, the lives that we’ve lived, the experiences we’ve shared. Even when we forget them, and I suspect we will, they will be ours in eternity. When we meet, we will remember and be remembered. And what greater treasure can there be than that?
Beware, or rather be aware of practicing your piety. Because of motives, yes. But also, because by being aware, you are engaged in treasure storing. This Lent might be a time for us to reorder ourselves, individually and communally. It is in this doing, this practicing while we are aware of the practice, that will enable us to be gathered up into Jesus.