1. Strange Ideas
The term ‘Lent’ is one that many people know well. However, it is also something which many people today have some very strange ideas about.
For example, in recent years, Lent has been a time where some people have given up things, like chocolate, only to start again when Easter has arrived. Lent has been a time when some people have ceased to decorate their churches with flowers. And Lent has been a time where the emphasis on eating fish on Fridays, and particularly Good Friday, has prevailed.
Unfortunately, none of those things are either biblical or Christian, Because while the bible talks about the need to fast periodically, giving up chocolate for forty days is not fasting. Removing flowers from churches or removing any thing that God has created from around us, also does not fit well with the original purpose of reflecting on our relationship with God. And while the eating of fish on Fridays does have some origins in other cultures. It was in 1548 under the reign of Edward VI that the British Parliament ordered abstention from eating meat on Fridays. And why? In order that the fishing trade be boosted, which would in turn strengthen the British navy.
So, as I said the term ‘Lent’ may be known to many people, but, unfortunately, many people have some very strange ideas about what Lent is supposed to be all about.
2. The Purpose of Lent
So what is Lent about? Well, its origins begin in the third century AD. And its purpose was to encourage the faithful to reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to reflect where they were in their relationship with God. And in the third century Lent—at the time, only two days—to be days of fasting.
Of course, later, Lent was extended to the week we now know as Holy Week. However, by the fourth century Lent had developed into the forty days, which is the current practice. However, the principal reason for it being extended to a period of forty days reflects the fact that this was not an easy time for the church. And there was much opposition to its existence and teachings.
Indeed, not everyone seeking baptism was genuine. And the church needed a way to distinguish between those who were and those who weren’t. As a consequence, the focus of Lent, became the need to teach the faith, so that every candidate was properly prepared for baptism. The forty days, then, became a time of rigorous examination to eliminate those who were not genuine at all. And for those who were seen to be genuine, their baptism would then take place on Easter Day in the evening.
Now, since then, the concept of Lent has gone through a number of changes. Beginning with a period where the emphasis was on sorrow and repentance for the things we do wrong, to today, where we have returned once again to its original purpose: to encourage the faithful to reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus. And to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God.
3. Ash Wednesday (Imposition of Ashes)
Now where Ash Wednesday fits in, is in the more sorrowful and repentant emphasis of the seventh and eighth centuries.
Indeed, the name Ash Wednesday, which is now the name given to the first day of Lent, got its name from the custom, in the ancient church, of marking the foreheads of worshippers with ashes which had been previously blessed. Unfortunately, at the time, the church was encouraging people to believe that they could buy their way into the kingdom, through either buying bits of religious memorabilia—like bits of Jesus’s cross—or, in terms of Ash Wednesday, having ashes ‘imposed’ upon their heads.
The significance of the rite was based on the Old Testament practice, where the imposition of ashes was a sign of penitence and mourning. Unfortunately, the church took the whole thing way too far.
The ashes were initially imposed primarily on those who had fallen into grave sin, in the hope that they could buy God’s favour so they would be able to join in the Easter Communion. But later, as this form of public penance declined, the ceremony associated with it was extended to be ‘imposed’ on the whole congregation.
So, come the reformation in the 16th century, and the re-awakening of the fact that people could not buy their way into God’s good books, the practice was recognised as being contrary to the Christian faith. And the protestant reformers abolished the practice.
In the Anglican Church at least, it was replaced with a service of scriptures and prayers known as a Commination service. And it was included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The theme of which is indicated in its subtitle: ‘The denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners’, and it is a very depressing service.
So, where does that leave us now, here in the 21st Century? Well, it leaves us back where it all began. And that is the third century idea of encouraging the faithful to reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in particular to reflect on our relationship with God.
B. RELIGIOUS RIGHTEOUSNESS (Mt 6:1-21)
So where does this leave us now?
Well, whether you’re an Anglican, a Catholic, a member of the Uniting Church, or whatever, we are all faced with this teaching from Matthew’s gospel. It is a passage which challenges us to where we are in the Christian faith. It is a passage that assumes that we have adopted certain religious practices. But it also challenges our motivation for participation in them.
And in the context of the season of ‘Lent’ or any other part of the Christian calendar, it makes for very interesting reading. Because it talks about three different types of religious righteousness, and, most importantly, the motivation behind each practice.
1. Giving to the Needy (1-4)
And the first example is about giving to the needy
Now the need to give—time, money, care, compassion, or whatever—is not the issue. Jesus expected all his disciples to be generous givers. But what the issue for Jesus was, was the motivation for giving. Because Jesus illustrated his point by contrasting two very different motivations.
In the first, and Jesus exaggerated the case for emphasis, Jesus described a giver as someone who organised a fanfare of trumpets, and here he was parading through the streets, with the trumpeters surrounding him, so that everyone would know what a good job he’d done. And then, in contrast, Jesus described a person who just quietly went around doing good deeds, without making a song and dance about it at all.
Of course, the natural assumption for Jesus’s listeners would have been that the attention seekers that Jesus was describing were none other than the Pharisees. And in one sense they would have been right. However, in reality he could have been talking about anyone. Anyone who was motivated by going out of their way to be given a pat on the back.
Sound familiar? Well, it’s interesting to note that in our society, today, people still do things to blow their own trumpet. Some like to have buildings named after them, and there is a growing tendency for subscribers to charities and supporters of good causes to see their name in print.
For Jesus, though, generosity is an important virtue of the Christian life. But generosity on its own is not enough, The motivation of the giver, also needs to be taken into account. There’s a saying: ‘It’s not what the hand is doing, but what the heart is thinking while the hand is doing it’
2. Prayer (5-6)
The second example is about prayer.
Now the need to pray, again, is not the issue. Jesus expected all this disciples to be in avid pray-ers. No! What the issue for Jesus was, was the motivation for prayer. And again, Jesus illustrated what he meant by contrasting two different motivations.
In the first, Jesus illustrated his point by describing someone praying in the synagogues and on street corners, with the specific purpose of being seen by others, so that everyone would know what a pious person they were. And in contrast to that he described someone who hid away and prayed in secret where no one knew what they were doing.
Now Jesus’s listeners would have understood some facts of what Jesus was describing, which may not instantly seem clear to us. And that is, firstly, that the discipline of regular prayer was good. Secondly, that there was nothing wrong in standing to pray. In fact, it was the usual posture for prayer for Jews. And thirdly, there was nothing wrong with praying on street corners as well as in synagogues either.
However, it’s the person’s motivation that was the issue for Jesus. And whether one is motivated from the need to simply to get points for a public display.
For Jesus, regular prayer was an important part of daily life for all believers. But prayer on its own was not enough, not without taking into account the motivation of the pray-er.
3. Fasting (16-18)
And the third example – is about fasting.
And, again, the need to fast is not an issue. Jesus expected all his disciples to fast from time to time. No! What the issue for Jesus was, was the motivation for fasting. So, again Jesus illustrated what he meant by describing two different motivations.
And the first was the situation where people fasted, and then pulled faces, and made it obvious by their appearance that they were fasting, so that everyone would know what they were doing. And in contrast to that he described others who were fasting, who washed, dressed properly, and kept their hair tidy, so that no one would know what they were doing.
Now, just by way of a sideline for a moment, because the idea of fasting seems to be largely ignored in today’s church, particularly among evangelical Christians. Most Christians lay stress on prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay stress on fasting. And yet the bible teaches the importance of fasting.
The Pharisees fasted twice a week. John the Baptist and his disciples fasted regularly, but the disciples of Jesus did not. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness. And in these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only expected his followers to fast, but gave them instructions on how to do it. And that should mean that it is something that many of us should think and pray about.
For Jesus then, fasting was an important part of the Christian life. But again, fasting on its own was not enough, not without taking into account the motivation of the one who was fasting.
Three little cameos, then, giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting, with a very repetitive theme threaded through them all. All three, Jesus put up as important aspects of the Christian life. But equally, with all three, he stressed, it was the motivation for doing them that really counted.
C. THREE TYPES OF MOTIVATION
It’s not so much what we do, then, but our motivation for doing it that’s important. And that means as we reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we reflect on where we are in our Christian lives, we need to examine our motivation in everything that we do.
And that means we need to test the things that we do to see that our motivation is pure. And to do that we could ask ourselves three questions:
The first question is: ‘Are we motivated to seek praise from others? Do we go out of our way to show others what we are doing in the hope that we will be rewarded by others?’
Now this is an easy trap to get into. We all like to be encouraged. We all like to be told ‘Well done.’ But from a Christian perspective, if this is the goal we seek, the motivation for our righteousness, we may get the applause of our fellow man, but it does nothing for God to whom the giving, prayers, or fasting should be directed. Indeed, the bible tells us elsewhere, that if this our motivation, then the applause of others will be our only reward.
The second question is: ‘Are we not motivated into seeking other’s praise, but are happy to quietly congratulate ourselves for doing the right thing?’
An agreeable compromise, some would think. But again, this is another trap that is easy to get into. Because it leads to feelings of superiority, smugness, and even self-righteousness. And the underlying problem with it is that the giving, praying, or fasting are still not truly directed to God.
Alternatively, thirdly, the question is, ‘Are we motivated purely in order to seek approval of God himself? Is our motivation limited to the goal of pleasing God and not towards seeking any reward for ourselves?’
Now this is the only motivation that is acceptable to God. As a consequence, in our reflections this is the one that we need to measure ourselves against.
Giving, prayer, and fasting are all extremely important aspects of the Christian life. But as Jesus pointed out, it’s not so much the practice that is important, but it is the motivation behind the practice that really counts.
And that brings us back to Ash Wednesday and Lent. Because over the years Lent has had different emphasises—some good and some helpful, and some unhelpful and some downright misleading and wrong practices too.
What we should remember, then, is that Lent was and is now a time of reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a time on reflecting on just where we are in our walk with God.
As a consequence, a major part of that has to be an examination of our motivations for doing things. Because among the practices, Jesus assumed that all his disciples would practice giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. But more important than the practices themselves, was the motivation behind doing them. And that is a challenge for all of us to look at as we reflect on Lent, on Jesus, and where we stand in the faith.
Posted: 10th April 2022
© 2022, Brian A Curtis