Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ash Wednesday's Sermon on the Mount


Every third year, Ash Wednesday comes at the end of a lectionary stretch that focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. This is one of those years. As I noted last week, we skip ahead on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in order to hear the story of the Transfiguration, but, before that, we have several weeks to hear from Jesus' longest recorded teaching. His sermon starts with the Beatitudes, then moves to an explanation of how the Mosaic law applies to his followers, before touching on challenging subjects like avoiding anger and lust.

During that stretch, it's easy to focus on the pieces instead of the whole. For example, how does a preacher tackle Matthew 5:21-37 without offering a pastoral explanation that Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage is hyperbole even if that's bad exegesis? Similarly, one is tempted to talk about being the light of the world without linking that image to the Beatitudes--the gospel text that is proclaimed the week before (except when that Sunday is the Feast of the Presentation). But we can't hear what it means to be the light of the world without hearing that God sees as blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. And we can't even begin to understand what Jesus is saying about divorce or lust or anger without remembering what it means to be the light of the world. So why would we think that we can understand what Jesus had in mind about praying, fasting, and giving alms in secret without linking those instructions to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount?

Every year, on Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus preach about alms, prayer, and fasting. That's an important part of the Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn't remove from its context. By the time we get to Matthew 6, Jesus has declared God's strange understanding of blessedness. He has identified his followers as the light that illumines that understanding to the world. He then exhorts them to live lives that let that light shine by avoiding culturally permissible behaviors that undermine the sense of holy community that defines God's reign. Then, and only then, we get to Ash Wednesday, when he tells his disciples that practicing the ins and outs of their relationship with God in order to impress others misses the point of belonging to God in the first place. That's what this gospel lesson is about. It's not about Lenten discipline. It's about belonging to the reign of God.

In other words, Jesus isn't simply telling us to practice our piety in private because that's the right way to give our alms, say our prayers, and endure a fast. It's the right way to do all of those things because we belong to the reign of God, which requires lives that reflect (shine) that truth inside and out. Although Jesus identifies the hypocrites whose spiritual practices are false, this isn't a sermon against hypocrites. It's a reminder that our external practices must reflect our internal identity. As transformed followers of Jesus, how we pray must reflect who we are in the same way that how we treat each other reflects who we are.

The good news is that that's what Lent is all about--getting the outside to match the inside by stripping way the false outside in order to get back in touch with the true inside. Lent is a time to be stripped of false pretenses. We get in touch with our mortality, our sinfulness, our need for salvation. The more fully we embrace that truth, the more fully God's grace puts us back together from the inside out. Then our piety isn't a performance but a reflection of our identity--just like the rest of our lives, just like the vision Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount.

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