Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” These words are spoken by Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral”. This play is based on the life and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, who was the archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170. At this time, Becket was struggling with King Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the church over and against the power of the state. Becket had been sent into exile in France, but was then allowed to return to England. In Eliot’s drama, Becket is pondering what he will do when he returns to England. As he is pondering, four tempters come to him. The first temptation is for physical safety: When he returns, cease struggling against the king and lay low so that he may live. The second temptation is for power, riches, and fame by serving the king. The third temptation is that Becket should form a coalition with the nobles who believe as he does and fight against the king. The fourth,
and most powerful temptation, is for Becket to seize the power that the church has given him as archbishop of Canterbury and to use it to put king and nobles under his control. It is to this that Becket responds with the words, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” For him, using the power of the church to assert the church’s rights
against the state is the right thing to do, but he would be doing it for the wrong reason: so that he might have ultimate power over those who have fought against him and exiled him. If Becket’s motives are not right, then anything he does will be meaningless.

“To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” This is what Jesus is talking about in our passage from Matthew tonight. First of all, he is not saying “if” we give alms, “if” we pray, and “if” we fast, then this is how we should do it. Instead, Jesus is assuming that the lives of those who follow him will naturally include giving alms, prayer, and fasting. So, when we do these
things, we are to examine our motives for doing them. Let’s take a look at each of these disciplines, then, and examine together the reasons that we do them, especially as we begin the season of Lent with a renewed emphasis on these disciplines. First, giving alms. For those who might not be familiar with the word, “alms,” it is simply an older word for charity. Why do we give money to people who are in need? Our automatic answer might be, “Because Jesus has commanded us to.” But this passage is about
examining our true motives, so let’s look at this a little bit more deeply. Douglas R.A. Hare, in his commentary on Matthew, writes, “In many societies, ancient and modern, the ability to give away money or possessions in significant amounts is perceived by all as a sign of power. The ‘biggest man’ (or woman) is the one who can give away the most.” Do we give our money to charitable causes because we truly feel for the people in need? Or is it so that we can be perceived by others as having more power—in other words, “I just don’t understand why your congregation has such a hard time with giving money to Lutheran World Relief, Loaves &
Fishes, Habitat for Humanity, etc. We’ve been doing this for years, and each year we’re able to give just a little bit more. It’s really not that hard.” If we have that kind of superior attitude, then we are doing the right thing—giving of our possessions—for the wrong reason: to show others how good we are and how well we follow Jesus’ command. Jesus tells us that we can either
receive praise from other people or praise from our Father in heaven. If we give charity to the poor simply because it is the right thing to do, with no motive of seeking praise from others, then we receive our commendation from God, which is more to be desired than praise from other human beings.

From giving charity, Jesus moves on to prayer. In this case, how do we do “the right thing for the wrong reason”? Many of us Lutherans would rather die than be asked to pray a spontaneous prayer in front of people, for fear that someone might actually hear us. And perhaps that is the problem. We’re doing the right thing—praying in private—for the wrong reason: we’re being too humble, and we’re taking pride in our humility. And, once we take pride in our humility, we are no longer being humble. If you remember from a few weeks ago, Jesus has also told us that we are to be salt and light for the earth. So, when you are asked to pray in front of
others, don’t always be quick to say no. Instead, examine your motives and the motives of the person who has asked you to pray. If you want to say yes so everyone can hear how well you pray, then say no. Saying yes in this case would be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. If you want to say no because you think you are being humble and you are taking pride in your humility, then say yes. Saying no in this case, again, would be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. If you’re just plain afraid to pray in front of others, then come and talk to me after worship this evening—we may need to work on that.

Finally, from giving alms and praying, Jesus moves on to fasting. Again, Jesus is assuming that, if we are following him, fasting at certain times will naturally be a part of our faith practices. And yet, this is something we don’t understand and, if we do understand it, we rarely do. Fasting, as my worship professor Mark Oldenburg says, is giving up something good for a little while, not simply giving up something that is bad for you, like chocolate. Fasting could mean giving up something like a favorite TV show, and giving over the time that you would normally watch TV to spend time studying the Bible or praying. Some congregations, including ours at one point, I believe, have encouraged their members to give up one meal per week and give the money that you would have spent on that meal to ELCA World Hunger. But, whatever we choose to give up during this 40 days, it is important, again, to examine our motives for doing so. We might not disfigure our faces to show others that we are fasting, as Jesus talks about. But when one person asks another, “What are you giving up for Lent?” with the intention of “one-upping” that person by saying, “Well, that’s all right, but I’m giving up. . .” then that is doing the right thing—fasting—for the wrong reason: to make our status higher than the other person’s.

Finally, as we look at all of these disciplines: giving alms, praying, and fasting, we need to remind ourselves of our overall motives for doing these things. It is not to somehow “make ourselves right” with God. Although our lesson from 2 Corinthians tonight urges the Corinthians to “be reconciled with God”, this statement is made in the passive voice, meaning that the Corinthians are not to do the reconciling work themselves. Rather, they are “to drop their defenses so that God may again do the reconciling work, just as God did the original reconciling work through the cross” (Rick Carlson). When we engage in these disciplines that Jesus talks about, examining our motives as we do them, we are dropping our defenses, repenting of our pride, and reorienting our hearts to God, so that God can continue to reconcile us to himself through the cross of Jesus. Let the ashes that we receive on our foreheads this night be for us,
not a prideful mark of our piety, but instead a sign of repentance from our pride, and a request to others to help us as we try to do the right thing for the right reason.

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