Ash Wednesday is a day of apparent contradictions. We hear Jesus warning the disciples about giving alms in such a way that will draw attention to themselves, and yet you might remember that Jesus encouraged his followers to let their light shine, specifically so that others might see their good works. He directs his followers to pray in secret, and yet he regularly prayed together with his disciples, and out loud. Jesus tells his followers to hide all visible signs that they are fasting, and yet here we are putting ashes on our foreheads where everyone can see them. What’s a faithful disciple to do, especially during this Lenten season of repentance?
There really is no contradiction when we look closely at what Jesus says—when we don’t stop reading too early. It’s not the actions themselves Jesus is concerned about. It’s the motivation behind them. What Jesus is really concerned about isn’t what we do but why we do it. He’s concerned about the state of our hearts.
Hear again his words to his followers: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Whenever you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father.”
Even when Jesus instructed his followers to let others see them doing good works, it was so that others would give glory to God in response. Jesus doesn’t object to others seeing us giving or praying or fasting. But Jesus does care why we do it—whether we are doing it for God, or doing it for the attention we can get from other people.
Our outward actions may be good ones, but it is the inward motivation that counts. Are we motivated by approval and acceptance by our family or friends? Do we want to look good on an application for school or work? Or are we motivated by a desire to please God alone—a God who knows what we do and why we do it, whether we are doing it in public or in the most unnoticeable corner of our lives?
When Jesus spoke of hypocrites, his listeners would have had a little different image in their minds than we do. That word in Greek referred to actors and performers. Actors play a part, and as performers, they tried to get people to pay attention to their performances. They weren’t necessarily trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes—they weren’t trying to convince their audiences that they were something they weren’t. It was the applause and approval of the audience that they were looking for. That’s what Jesus warns us against when he says not to be like the hypocrites—like performers and actors who are hungry to be noticed by other people.
When we give or pray or fast, wherever we do it, it shouldn’t be so that others will approve of us, but so that God will be pleased and glorified by what we offer. We are to have clean hearts, ones fixed on God alone.
Unfortunately, we struggle with this. The desire for approval from those we love or respect is powerful. Sometimes that desire can lead us to act in ways that are not pleasing to God. Or, it can inspire us to act in positive ways, but for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we don’t even have a clear idea of what our motivations are; they are a muddle of our yearning to please God and the need for belonging and acceptance in the human community. It can be hard to sort out what our real motivations are.
But, sometimes we do know what our motivations are, and what we know troubles us. We know we are playing a part. Much as we’d like to act only out of love for God, we know that other motivations are taking precedence. Then we do try to hide the truth of who we are, from others, from ourselves, and maybe even from God.
When Peyton was in the fourth grade, two little boys had crushes on her. I went to help out with the Valentine’s Day party, and when the other little girls saw me, they gathered around me like a little flock of excited birds. They wanted to tell me about what one of Peyton’s admirers had done. Before they could tell their news, Peyton came out into the hall with a deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes and motioned me over to her locker.
First she pulled out what David had given her—an enormous stuffed animal and a box of expensive chocolates, bigger than I’d ever received, both of which he had presented to her as all the other little girls looked on. That was what had the other fourth-grade girls all atwitter.
Then Peyton drew out another gift—a home-made bracelet of mismatched plastic beads strung on a piece of elastic, with the frayed ends clumsily knotted together. That was the gift that Kevin had quietly and shyly given her, while no one else was watching. When it comes to what we offer God, the gift can be lavish or humble. What’s important is that we offer it for God’s pleasure and glory alone.
God, of course, knows what’s in our hearts—what our motivations are. Psalm 139 declares, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”
We don’t need Lent so that God can get to know us better. We need Lent so that we can get to know ourselves better. It’s a time for us to search and know our own hearts. Through prayer and study, fasting and worship, we come face to face with our true motivations for all that we do in our lives. We see where our love of the world—a desire for others’ approval and all its fleeting rewards—takes center stage, and love of God is pushed to the wings.
In a few weeks, on Maundy Thursday, we will commit ourselves anew to our covenant with our loving and faithful God. We will affirm that God searches and knows our hearts, and then we will offer this prayer: O God, you know that I make this covenant with you today without guile or reservation. If any falsehood should be in it, guide me and help me to set it aright. And now, glory be to you, O God the Father, whom I from this day forward shall look upon as my God and Father. Glory be to you, O God the Son, who have loved me and washed me from my sins in your own blood, and now is my Savior and Redeemer. Glory be to you, O God the Holy Spirit, who by your almighty power have turned my heart from sin to God.
This is an appropriate prayer for us to offer on this Ash Wednesday, a day when we begin a time of searching our own hearts—the hearts that God searches and knows. We remember that we are mortal and human, with all the weaknesses and desires that our sinful natures encourage us to indulge. This is what the ashes remind us of. But the ashes in the form of the cross also remind us of this: that by God’s grace we are given the opportunity to search and know our hearts, to repent, to be forgiven, and to be made new. We are invited to turn our lives in the direction of the cross, where we find forgiveness and life in the one who has searched us and knows us and loves us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young