In many expressions of the Christian faith, Lent is a season of intense preparation for those seeking baptism and for those baptized persons who wish to reaffirm their baptismal vows. During this season they will bear the responsibility of standing in our midst as “examples of conversion” in our own “journeym towards Easter.”1
In just a few moments, we will be invited [along with them] to the observance of a holy Lent. We will be called upon to engage practices of self-examination and repentance through giving, prayer, and fasting. While the practices that characterize Lent are ones that are integral to the life of discipleship and ought to be practiced regularly by Christians regardless of church calendar, this season is an intensification of those practices that ground us in our life in Christ – a life characterized by love for God and neighbor.
Because at the heart of these practices is a relationship. They are not disciplines primarily intended to tick-off boxes of “right behavior.” They are not meant to perfect the self projection of piety and spirituality to the world around us. Rather, they are about perfecting us in our relationship with Christ and about aligning our desires and concerns with God’s desires and concerns for the world that God loves. Giving, praying, and fasting are disciplines that cultivate our “yes” to God and strengthen our resolute “no” to the machinations of empire and the greed, gluttony, and exploitation that support empire’s goals. Lenten disciplines invite us deeper into what it means to be the people of God engaged in God’s mission of compassionate liberation for the poor and the disenfranchised.
When Jesus, in our gospel reading today, tells us to “Beware of practicing our piety before others, in order to be seen by them” he is not insisting that we keep our faith and practices private. In fact, our English translation of this verse obscures the fullness of what Jesus is saying – the word we typically translate as “piety” is much more nuanced. As we have it in our translation, the word is suggestive of practices that pertain only to the personal and the private – practices that cordon off or compartmentalize the spiritual to the internal and psychic world of the individual. The connotation, at least in how we usually understand the word piety today, is that it has primarily to do with a particular inner disposition.
A better translation of the word is righteousness or justice, and is much more suggestive of practices that are meant to be embodied in a socially dynamic context, practices that connect our inner disposition with who we are in relation to each other and to God. The warning that Jesus gives is not about whether we will practice these disciplines, but about the motivation behind them and the ways in which our engagement with them leads to the manifestation of God’s justice.
Having warned his listeners, Jesus gives three examples of disciplines, practices that the Church has historically associated with Lent as particularly valuable for the exercises of self-examination and penitence.
The first is almsgiving – the practice of giving material goods, money, and support to the poor in our midst. Giving is not simply an exercise in detachment whereby we learn how to loosen our grip of control on material wealth and resources. Moreover, the practice of giving is obscured if it is only done out of our abundance. Instead, the practice of giving is a discipline of sacrifice, of denying ourselves so that others might experience healing, liberation, and satisfaction. Giving is a discipline that trains us to stand in solidarity with the poor and to recognize the systems that create the conditions that leave people without the basic necessities of life and the means to flourish as human beings.
The second discipline is prayer – the practice of communion with God. Prayer is not just about the words we pose to God. If all we do in prayer is speak, we risk molding God into our own image, treating God as a kind of divine vending machine that we hope will dispense the fulfillment of our requests. Rather, prayer is much more than a one-sided conversation. It is a practice through which God offers us transformation. As Henri Nouwen suggests, prayer “is the act by which we divest ourselves of all false belongings and become free to belong to God and God alone.”2 He goes on to suggest that this practice is such a radical act because it demands that we look critically at “our whole way of being in the world” – the various ways in which we are connected to others in the vast network of relationships in which we exist – and to embrace the life that God has given us in Christ.
When Jesus instructs us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” he is not suggesting that God’s reign will only come if we pray it into existence. Rather, he is admonishing us to look at ourselves, our communities, our social and political order, to repent ofm the ways we distort God’s reign, and to pray for the divine power needed to embody the rule of God in all aspects of our personal and communal life.
The third discipline Jesus speaks about is fasting traditionally, the practice of abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. This discipline helps us to recognize that we do not
live by bread alone. Our physical hunger is a reminder that our true hunger is for God and God’s righteousness. Fasting also provides us with an opportunity to examine our practices of
consumption, exposing the ways in which our habits around material things – whether food or otherwise – contribute to the exploitation of the world’s poor, the ways in which we buy into and perpetuate the corporate values of greed and wealth-mongering that support a market economy made possible by cheap and unethical labor practices.
Giving, praying, and fasting – these Lenten disciplines are practices that train our bodies and minds in the way of righteousness and justice. Through them, God exposes to us how our habits around food, money, material things, and even spirituality get in the way of deep and authentic relationship with God and with each other. These are not disciplines that aim toward a kind of Christianized self-improvement plan, but are practices that have the potential to open us to the radically transformative power of God, a power that breathes life into dust and invites us to share in the intimate love that God has for the world.
In our gospel passage, Jesus essentially tells us that our motivation is intrinsically linked to our reward. Do we fast from inconsequential things as a way to make ourselves feel as if we are doing something spiritual? Do we write checks to charitable organizations because we hope to have our name appear on a published donor list or engraved on a placard? Do we offer our services to others only to expect a bump in our reputation and status? Do we promise to pray for others so that they might see us as pious and religious? Will we leave this service today wearing the mark of ashes on our forehead with pride and satisfaction because others will see how seriously we take our faith?
Or do we give, fast and pray because we know that these practices open our capacity to see with new and tangible clarity the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us and who calls us into the divine mission of justice and reconciliation? Will the mark upon our forehead be a reminder to us of our elemental nature and our utter dependence upon God for the life we live? The fulfillment of our hopes will be our reward – if status, fame, or recognition are the motivating factors, then we will be awarded nothing more. But if our motivation is to use these practices to deepen our relationship with God, to see the world as God sees it, and to expand our capacity for the kind of humility and compassion needed to embody justice in all that we do, then we will be awarded nothing less.
1 Book of Occasional Services, 141-142.
2 Henri Nouwen, “Letting Go of All Things,” Sojourners, May 1979, p. 6.