If we listen to the old testament we find very much the prophets are very critical of the way people go about their religion. Their criticism is that the people say one thing and do another, the profess one thing and act in another way. You might say that is always the problem and it is certainly what people say about people today who claim to be religious.
Jesus seems to stand in that same tradition of the prophets, critical of religion in his day and how people behave. He has some choice words to say about religious people: brood of vipers, whitened sepulchres, do what they tell you but don’t follow their example. Tough words for the people of his day to listen to and if they were addressed to us today we would find them tough.
Perhaps that is how we are to read the Gospel reading, a tough warning. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving were parts of their religion. But Jesus sees through what people do: its done to attract notice, to look good, to impress but there is nothing in it, it is empty. Jesus recommends the things be done in private, so that notice won’t be attracted, what’s done in private will have the right intention.
This passage read to us on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent always seems to me to present us with a difficulty. The very nature of Lent is that people pour into Churches, do more, are seen to make a great effort. Is there not a danger then as the Gospel says that it may be done for the wrong reason? To attract attention and empty gesture. It’s a powerful criticism and it sounds as if it could be right.
But what is true is that religion can deceive and delude and at its worst it can create in the person a self-righteousness that can be a very corrupting thing. There is no need for me to do anything different because I am alright, no need to do anything more because I am alright, no need for me to examine my life because I am alright, no need for me look at my spiritual life because I am alright, no need for me to confess my sins, no need for me to seek out grace in life because I am alright. There is no need for repentance on my part. There is no sin in my life.
Lent instead presents us with the opportunity to stop us in our tracks and have a good look at ourselves to change our ways.
When we listen to what Jesus says in the Gospel it sounds like a caricature – the man who prays loudly, the person who lets everybody know they are fasting, the person who makes sure everyone sees they are putting money in – who really behaves like that. But like all caricatures there is an element of truth. We would hate to think of ourselves as doing things for notice, as turning out like this, but secretly we know there is always the danger that it happens.
At the end of the day it is easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons.
In a few moments we will put Ashes on your forehead. A traditional sign of the beginning of this season of renewal. That could turn out to be an empty gesture, it has to be accompanied by a deep resolve to walk with God and change our ways.