Every year, the first words of Jesus that we are given to read during Lent are the same (in the readings for Ash Wednesday). They come from the Sermon on the Mount, which is likely the teaching of Jesus that has had more influence than any other in the two millennia between the time that he first spoke these words and today. In this section of his sermon (Matthew 6:1-18–take a moment and read it now if possible), Jesus focused on spiritual practices and helpful and unhelpful ways to go about them. This is why we begin each Lent with them. During these days leading up to Easter, we rightly increase our attention on our spiritual practices, because we can't return to God with all our hearts while continuing to do things as we always have. Yet Jesus' words indicate his adamance about two things:
First, these kinds of practices are so good that they will always be part of the lives of those who follow him in any real sense. Notice that Jesus did not say, "If you give... if you pray... if you fast," but "when you give... when you pray... when you fast..." His sermon assumes what was true in his day–that anyone committed to a devout life with God did these things then, and also that his followers in the future would continue to do them now.
Second, despite how good these practices are, it's possible to do them in ways that are harmful rather than helpful–both to us and those around us. We can give, pray, and fast in ways that open the channels for God's grace to work in our souls, or we can do them in ways that close those channels off but still leave us appearing very religiously devout before others. Therefore, and this is Jesus' ultimate point in this passage, we should do these outward practices, but they miss the point without an inward openness to God.
For the next three weeks, we will dig in to this passage and these practices, focusing during the remainder of this week on "when you give," then next week on "when you pray," followed by "when you fast," seeking to find the most helpful ways that each of us can put them into practice in our lives today.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]