Human relationships on the personal and international level must rate as the greatest challenge for the world’s future. As I remarked this day last year, the invasion of Ukraine reveals an unspoken issue that confronts us: humanity is flawed.
The Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once commented, If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent that continues through to the day before Easter Day. You may find it helpful to use the six weeks of Lent as a special time for daily Bible reading, honest reflection, and prayer.
Indeed, the prayer for Ash Wednesday and for Lent, focuses on God’s forgiveness of the repentant person and spiritual renewal. The Lord Jesus challenges us to know the Scriptures, reflect on them and to pray, not just in Lent but throughout the year.
However, such is our flawed nature that we can all deceive ourselves. We can say one thing and do another. We may read the Bible and pray, attend church, and give to the poor, but our hearts can remain unchanged in our relationship with the Lord, as well as with one another.
Consider Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy in his Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Knowing better than we, how deceitful our hearts can be (Jeremiah 17:9), Jesus warns us against using our faith to win the praise of others and make a name for ourselves.
In a world where religion is publicly decried, we may not win popularity in the wider community. However, it can be a different story within the life of the church. Preachers and church leaders, musicians and generous givers can generate praise if they work at it. And social media can easily be used to promote this.
It is against this that Jesus warns us. Professing Christians who long for the accolades of others will miss out on the true reward that comes from the living God. All they have is an empty faith, with no lasting value.
Consider what he says about giving and prayer.
Giving. Look at v.2: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.”
Trumpets may be a metaphor: we shouldn’t sound our own trumpet or boast about our giving to the needy. But trumpets may also have a literal meaning. In Jesus’ day the Temple trumpets were sometimes blown, calling on people to make a special donation when there was a pressing need. Anyone watching would see who responded.
Giving to support the ministry of God’s Word and providing assistance for those in need is biblical. Here Jesus is saying that to give so others know what we’re doing, whether in church or at a charity function, is hypocritical.
Hypocritical religion is not from the heart. It’s motivated by self-interest. Jesus is saying here that hypocrites give in order to be honored by those around them. And, he states, “I tell you they have their reward.”
“But when you give alms,” he says, “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.”
To ensure that we’re not proud or smug about our generosity, Jesus uses a vivid metaphor: the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. No one, apart from God, will know about this private giving. He will see our real motives.
To be rewarded by God is the best kind of blessing. Approval by others is transient. Approval from God is eternal.
Prayer is another area where we can be tempted to look for human recognition. Look at verse 5: “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…”
Prayers in the synagogues were typically led by a synagogue member. To be invited to lead the prayers was a mark of distinction. But again, Jesus knows how easy it is for anyone leading prayers to draw attention to themselves – perhaps through the literary quality of their prayer or their tone of voice.
Significantly, Jesus focuses on private prayer. He isn’t critizing public prayer, but he well knows that who we are when we pray in the privacy of our room is who we truly are. In praying privately, we can be nothing but genuine and honest before God. And uncluttered, heartfelt prayer is what God hears.
How important it is that on this Ash Wednesday – and every day – we heed Jesus’ warning: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” God delights in our honest and heartfelt, loving and loyal relationship with him.
A prayer for Ash Wednesday: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, so that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A prayer for peace. God of the nations, whose kingdom rules over all, have mercy on our broken and troubled world, especially the people of Ukraine and other war zones. Shed abroad your peace in the hearts of all men and women and banish from them the spirit that makes for war. We ask this so that all races and people may learn to live as members of one people and in obedience to your laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A prayer for all in need. Almighty God, we commend to your fatherly goodness all who are in any way afflicted or distressed, especially the people of Turkey and Syria suffering from the catastrophic earthquake. May it please you to comfort and relieve them according to their needs, giving them patience in their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.