Meditation on Matthew 6:1-6
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
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. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I used to wonder why my grandmother was always humming while she cleaned the house. Housekeeping was such hard work back then, when I was a child, visiting her in her little cottage in Daytona Beach, Florida, without air conditioning. She did everything by hand—no dishwasher, no washing machine, no sewing machine, no dryer, not even an electric vacuum cleaner. She washed all her clothes in the kitchen sink and hung them on the clothesline in the backyard or on the back porch. She had a gas stove she lit with a match and an old refrigerator she called an ice box.
Grandma, one of 13 born to Norwegian immigrants, was one of the most humble, hardworking people I have ever met. Her family was well cared for and loved. She served her church in a myriad of ways. And her house was always clean. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” she used to say, a saying that may have come from John Wesley in a sermon in 1778.
Grandma dusted regularly, something that seemed much less important to my generation, especially when I was a young mother who worked outside the home. Dusting is one of those jobs that no sooner are you finished, you look away and the dust has returned. But that didn’t bother Grandma.
I have come to realize that the act of cleaning itself was deeply satisfying for her; it brought her peace and joy, no matter if the result—a clean house—was short lived. And when she hummed her favorite hymns, her cleaning tasks truly became a spiritual discipline, an act of grateful worship.
And this is how it is with us on Ash Wednesday, when we stop all the rushing around we usually do, racing against ourselves to complete everything we have set ourselves to do, however unrealistic and self-harming these expectations might be. Instead, we honestly examine ourselves, our motives, thoughts, and habits, and invite the Lord, as the psalmist says in 139:33-34, to help us see the sins in us that we cannot see and cleanse us from them. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns,” the psalmist prays. “See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the way everlasting.…” The point of confession and forgiveness is to restore our peace with the Lord and one another, so that nothing will interfere with our journey with Christ to the cross, throughout these 40 days.
Confession and forgiveness are something like house cleaning. We are never finished. As soon as we have sincerely repented from sin and returned to the Lord, next thing we know, we fall into sin again. But that’s OK. God’s grace is sufficient for us, as it was for the Apostle Paul. The Lord wants us to keep on returning to him, not just for forgiveness, but for strength to do His will.
Some people struggle with the image of human beings as dust. I find it comforting, a relief, to admit that we are dust, and as Genesis 3:19 tells us, “and to dust we shall return.” For we are God’s precious dust, and we stand in solidarity with every human being on this.
The dust reminds us of our beginnings and our close relationship with the Lord, from the beginning, not to mention our strong connection to the earth. In the beginning, when the Lord was creating in Genesis 1:27, God formed the first people. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In 2:7, we get an even closer look at His work of creating the first people when he fashions adam from the dust of the ground, adamah. The Lord didn’t hesitate to put his hands in the soil for this act of love. He didn’t see the ground or dust as dirty or bad. It was the medium for our creation, like artists use oil or acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, pencils, pen and ink, and so on. God chose to use dust. Our heavenly Father is our potter, says Isaiah 64:8; and we are the clay. He didn’t just speak us into existence as he did the light, sky and stars; he formed the human being and leaned in close to breathe his breath into the person’s nostrils and the man became a living being. And the word for breath is ruach, the same for God’s Spirit, the same for the wind that swept over the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. God’s breath remains within us, reanimating and reforming our dust. We are dust, but we aren’t the same dust or the same people we were yesterday. God is at work in our lives to accomplish his plans and to use all things for good.
We rejoice in the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not anything we do or anything that can happen to us. In life and in death, we belong to Him.
In our Matthew reading, Jesus explores three expressions of authentic Jewish piety—prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Jesus is often moved to compassion and acts of kindness and healing when he sees people in need. With the hypocrites’ long, fancy prayers in the public square and the practice of piety for others to see, Jesus seems to be talking about religion verses faith. His society is full of religious people who seem to do all the right things, just as our society is full of religious people, who may not actually be faithful. God is not impressed with vast amounts of spiritual knowledge and memorizing Scripture without putting it into practice. The Lord knows when we are holding back, faking it, or just going through the motions. The Lord knows if he has our hearts and if our lives are truly centered on Him.
He wants to have an intimate relationship with us, just as he did from the very beginning, when he leaned in close and breathed into the nostrils of adam, formed from adamah. While there is a time to practice your good works publicly, so that all can see and give God the glory, when you practice acts of charity and kindness privately, so no one else knows, it can’t be an obligation or a task meant to impress others; acts of kindness and charity are an act of worship, a grateful response to God’s gracious gift of salvation. When we pray in our rooms, with the doors closed, it can only be about relationship and learning to trust in Him.
Just as all of Lent is a season to get back on track with our Christian walk and live to serve and work for justice, Ash Wednesday is a day of new beginnings, a chance to start over. We empty ourselves of ego and pride. We let go of our worldly cares and goals. We confess together as a faith community and are marked with a cross of ashes to remember God’s great love and as a sign of our renewed commitment to the Lord and living our faith. We humbly recall the costly price of the sacrifice and his claiming us in our baptisms—our dying and rising with him to new life. We surrender all of ourselves, together, so our Potter can recreate and renew us, unite and heal us, make us whole and holy in Him.
My grandmother, if she were living today, would be way over 100 years old. She probably wouldn’t be disappointed that my house isn’t as clean as hers was and that I seldom bother to dust. She was a gracious and kind woman who would have been happy to know that her prayers for me were answered, that I finally began to accept God’s love and forgiveness, and that I am learning to live for Christ each day. She would tell me, whenever I shared my feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear or disappointment, “to give it all to the Lord in prayer.” It sounds so simple, but it really is quite profound. No matter how you are feeling, seek the Lord in prayer. Go into your closet and shut the door. For God cares for you. His love will never end.
We can rejoice and give thanks that we are dust, God’s precious dust. We have nothing to fear as we contemplate returning to the dust. In life and in death, we belong to God.