1 Mar 2017
“‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.’” (Matt. 6:1)
In the name …
So as we can hear in these words, our Jesus is into spiritual sincerity. In this sense, He follows in the long tradition of Israel’s prophets. And in this sense, just like the prophets before Him, He sets Himself up for a dangerous confrontation with the priests, the keepers of the cult, the practitioners of God’s worship. And it’s usually the prophets who come up short in these conflicts, and it’s no different with Jesus. It’s one thing to point out the sinner, especially the weak and defenseless ones, but it’s something completely different to call-out the ones accepted as working for God. And because Jesus does challenge the legitimacy of the Temple, her priests and even why the faithful should flock to her precincts, well, we all know what’s going to happen to Him because of this, and that’s the story we tell in Lent.
In a couple of days, we here at Holy Name will conduct the Stations of the Cross. We will process to each Station to be reminded there about the events of Jesus’ last days. And as I stand beneath the Stations as a priest I can’t help but notice the other priests depicted in those Stations. They’re standing there and condoning everything that is happening to Jesus because they are so sure of themselves. They gloat over the unbelievable suffering of another human being. And those priests don’t represent Jews. And we have to be clear about this because the political rhetoric of the present has become so mean-spirited that it has transformed into acts of religious violence. Jewish graves are desecrated, synagogues and children’s schools are threatened, swastikas reappear as graffiti. Those priests represent any person of any faith in any age who would use God in their own self-righteousness to make another person worthless.
Prophets are not patient with this kind of religious leader or their acts of worship. In my own daily Bible reading, for example, I’m in the book of the prophet Hosea at present. That’s where I ran into this one example of prophetic warning of which there are numerous other examples throughout the Bible. Hosea complains: “[Israel] has built altar after altar, [and] they have only served him as occasion for sin.” (8:11) The forms and practice of religion, according to Hosea, are flourishing, but the worshippers aren’t being changed. Israel is relatively well-off at the time of Hosea. “‘“Ah, I am rich,”’” the people proclaim. (11:8) And it doesn’t matter that they’re rich because they cheat and oppress (12:7) as long as they go to one of those numerous altars and offer a sacrifice to God. That makes it all right in their minds, but God is not impressed, and it is not His blessing that leads to their success. This is that insincerity of worship that drives the prophets nuts and it’s the same insincerity that leads Jesus to preach a warning about practicing our faith only so that it may be seen by others.
This is an important message to consider as tonight we begin our Lenten journey. We will place ashes upon our foreheads in a short while. Those old, burnt palms are to symbolize for us that we will not live forever, and they are also to remind us that our souls that will live forever, are not always remembered when we make our choices. Too often our choices are based only on bodies that do not last and we forget all about our souls that do. And the ashes are not imposed so that others walking toward us can see us as active people of faith. Ash Wednesday is not about seeing ashes on other people. The ashes that are important are the ones we don’t see, the ones on our own foreheads. If we think more about what others see, says Jesus to us this evening, then our faith needs some work.
And this is where Jesus takes us back to sincerity of faith. We worship not so that others can see how good and decent we are. We worship because Jesus deserves it, and this becomes abundantly clear during Lent. Our faith is not a minor altar to an unknown god to cover all the bases in order to protect our behinds. Our faith in Jesus is because of His faith in us. He didn’t throw away His life on the cross. He offered His life because He believes in us. And this means we can’t only go through the motions of faith. Our faith has to be sincere. Lent is the sacred opportunity to feel our faith, to be moved by its emotional power, to connect with the Saviour who loves us as much as the cross.
I hope we’ll take this opportunity seriously through church worship, dialogue, learning, sacrifice and piety, not so that these may be seen by others, but because we need and want them. For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo