July 25, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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 who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Ash Wednesday, 1994
Neither about Ashes nor about Crosses
Now consider these words of the Gospel reading: Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you do good don’t do it for others to see it. When you pray or when you fast don’t do it for others to notice and admire you. This appears to be a lesson on humility, does it not? And if it were would it not be strange that on the day we are reminded not to show our piety in public we would walk around with crosses of ash on our forehead?

This text is not exactly about some practical advises on how we should go about practicing our piety, exercising our benevolence. The text is not about carrying or not of a cross of ashes on our forehead. The text chosen for Ash Wednesday is neither about ashes and nor about crosses. It is much more radical than that. Economy is what this text is about. It is about two economic systems that oppose each other. The word economy literally means the administration or the management of the household. Jesus here sets two systems of management over against each other. One refers to the management of the ways in which the world works. You do something for the sake of receiving a reward. The rule is the one of exchange and the goal is for one to gain as a result. That is what we call profit. All of us know these two rules well in most of what we do everyday. One goes to work and does one’s job in exchange for a reward that is called the wage, that is, the salary one receives. She/he then goes to the market and exchange it for some milk, bread, rice, meat or whatever they need. One turns on the light in the house, or the furnace to get heat or gas, and will be charged for it at the end of the month. In the process, the difference between what you get and what you had to expend is called profit. And profit is what makes some people rich and others poor, those who gain more than they give up, and those that give up more than they gain. As we all know the household of this world works like this: the better you know the rules of the market and the better positioned you are in the process of exchange, the greater the profit. The least positioned you are the more impoverished you become up to the point of giving your life, selling your strength, your own physical existence just to survive and keep afloat.

The Gospel message is not about giving up and going out of the world to live in a community that would organize itself in another way. The message has to do with seeing new ways in which the household of this world can be transformed, of having a vision of another household, the household of God. The words of Jesus show us where this new vision starts. It starts in our relationship with the least ones and then unfolds itself into our relationship to God. That is where we ought to be practicing a new economy instead of doing what the hypocrites do trying to make some profit even out of those pretentious gestures of being pious, giving alms or praying and fasting. By inserting these gestures in an economy of profit they lost the vision. Through his words Jesus remind us that there indeed is a different economy, not the economy of profit, but the economy of the gift. A gift, to be truly a gift, should not expect a return. If a gift is given in the expectation of even a simple “thank you” it is no longer a pure gift. A gift is what is given without the thought of reciprocity, or even the thought of a return gesture. Therefore, the perfect gift is the one that you don’t even know how to return. It is a gift given freely, that frees you from any obligation. It is given in such a way that others might not even know who the giver is. However, God who sees in secret will know and will reward the giver. But how does this work? And what kind of reward is that? No, it is not that your name is going to be written in the book of life. That has already been done in your baptism. God has already told you freely, without any charge: “you are my beloved child.” There are different interpretations of how the early witnesses may have recounted these words. Some of the early witnesses say that Jesus’ words were that God who sees in secret will reward openly so that this reward is something you are going to enjoin not as an invisible spiritual sort of reward, but as a visible gift. That would mean that it is something that is going to make a visible difference in your life. And to say that it is God’s gift, would mean that it does not need to be returned, it is yours freely. If it were John or Mary who would be giving you the gift the economy of this world would tell you that somehow you owe something back to him or her. But if it is from God, though it might come through the hands of John or Mary, it is a gift, and you don’t owe anything back. This is the economy of the gift. If one gives without establishing a negotiation, without expecting a return and a profit, then one will also be the recipient of a gift that does not expect a pay back. This is the vision of how the divine household is managed; this is the economy of the gift. And we know only too well how difficult it is sometimes to just let go of the economy of the world. And, often, it is more difficult to receive freely than it is to give freely. We are afraid to receive freely because the economy of the world tells us that if we receive something we are by design in debt. The invitation of the Gospel is for us to let go of this way of thinking and just learn how to give and receive freely with grace.

A poem byWendell Berry aptly describes the economy of this gift:

By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
……..
Now I recall to mind
A costly year:
………….
But won’t you be ashamed
To count the passing year
At its mere cost, your debt
Inevitably paid?
For every year is costly,
As you know well. Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
The gift is balanced by
Its total loss, and yet,
And yet the light breaks in,
Heaven seizing its moments
That are at once its own
And yours. …..

So, friends, the season of lent that begins today is not about showing sorrow that others will notice, it is not about making public penitence. Hypocrites, said Jesus, can do pretty well at that and even end up making some profit out of it. The season of lent is really about the practice of resurrection, of doing the thing that does not compute, of loving who might not be lovable, of giving a flower that will soon fade and cannot be returned. It is like what those women in the Gospel who after their friend was crucified went to their houses to prepare spices and ointment to be spent in a dead body and a decaying flesh, just to be spent as a gift without return. At their houses they were managing the household of God. This is the practice of resurrection, and it was because of that act that they were the ones to first witness the resurrection.

The ashes that we carry on our forehead today are not an act of public penance for us to boast about our piety. They are nothing but a reminder that what seems to be worthless, worthless like ashes, worthless like someone who is unable to return our gift, worthless for the economy of this world is what God sees as having inestimable value. The vision of God’s economy is exactly this invitation to invest in ashes, in that which has no return, has no interest rate to profit from. Let us practice resurrection and God who sees in secret
will reward us openly, as openly as an empty tomb on a bright Sunday morning.

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