Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Some of you know that after finishing seminary I served at St. Peter’s in Kerrville. I had only been there a few weeks when a parishioner invited me to lunch. It was a work day so I was wearing a clergy shirt and collar. After eating lunch we went up to the cash register to pay and the cashier looked at me and said, “Oh! Are you Fr. Mike?”
I have to say that the warnings Jesus gives in today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) were not the first things that came to mind. I thought to myself, “Wow! You’ve only been here a few weeks and already people have heard of you and are excited to meet you.” I couldn’t help but notice what sounded to me like a tone of approval in the woman’s voice and I imagined the kind words she might say. So I reached out my hand and said, “Yes, I am.” The gentleman with me said, “No you’re not.” Then he looked at the woman and said, “No, that’s not Fr. Mike.” As we walked out of the restaurant he said to me, “She meant Fr. Mike the Catholic priest. Everyone knows and loves him.”
I think what happened to me that day at lunch is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Today’s gospel isn’t as much about piety, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, as it is the motivation behind those things: our need and desire to be seen, praised, and recognized by others; the temptation to value the rewards of others over the rewards of God; and the ways in which we over invest ourselves in the illusion of what others can give us. That’s not only about practices of piety, it’s also about how we live our life. It’s a question of finding ourselves.
As life events go, my lunchtime lesson probably wasn’t that big of a deal but as I look back on it I can see how I had given my heart to another’s opinions, praise, and approval. And it didn’t much matter whether those things were real or imagined. I was looking for myself in what others thought and said about me. I was looking for myself outside of myself. I was looking for myself through the eyes of others rather than through the eyes of God. I had stepped outside of that hidden and secret place within each of us where the Father sees and rewards. St. Augustine says it like this: “You [speaking of God] were within me and I was outside of myself, and I searched for you in that exterior world” (Confessions X, 27).
Have you ever had that nagging sense that you just aren’t enough? Have you ever spent time comparing yourself to and competing with others? Have you ever spoken or acted in a particular way to get someone’s approval? Have you ridden the rollercoaster of someone else’s opinion about you? How much is your worth or value tied to what others say or think about you? Have you ever tried to prove yourself by working harder and longer? Have you ever put on a good front, pretending to be someone you weren’t, just so you would fit in and be accepted? Do you sometimes keep score of your life, adjusting the bottom line according to the number and size of your successes and failures? If you recognize any of those things in your life then you probably know what it’s like to search in the exterior world.
In some way, those things, and a thousand others just like them, are symptoms of the human condition. They reveal legitimate and authentic needs and desires. They reveal our desire to be seen, valued, and loved; and our need to be accepted, included, and part of a community. In a strange, sort of misguided way they reveal our longing for the holy, the transcendent, for something outside of and beyond ourselves that we cannot give to or do for ourselves. They also, however, disclose what we treasure and to what or whom we have given our hearts. They are the symptoms of having lost ourselves.
Searching in the exterior world is risky business because sometimes you find out you are not who you thought you were. “No, that’s not Fr. Mike,” he said. But I really wanted it to be. I wanted the recognition, praise, and approval. As painful as those experiences might be, they are filled with grace. It is the opportunity to discover that who we are in God – and not in the eyes, opinions, praises, or approval of another – is who we most truly are. It’s a first step in our journey home.
Lent is not the journey from bad to good, or sinner to saint. It’s the journey of coming to ourselves and returning home. So we need to be careful that the very things we give up, take on, or do for Lent don’t become our Lenten treasures to which we give our hearts. Let’s not forget that our practices and disciplines are about teaching and helping us to give our hearts to God and to each other. They are not the means of gaining God’s acceptance, approval, or love.
So let me ask you this. What are your treasures? To what or whom have your given your heart? In what direction are your treasures taking your life? Which treasures are truly of value and which ones are only fool’s gold? Where has your searching in the exterior world taken you?
Don’t be afraid to reflect on and answer those questions. I am convinced that there is no right or wrong answer to those questions. There are, however, truthful and less than truthful answers, honest and less than honest answers, answers that keep us stuck and answers that can free us to move forward. Where we begin our Lenten journey is not as important as where it takes us. In the same way, what we give up, take on, or do for Lent are not as important as what those things do for us.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”