Lectio Divina: Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
The meaning of prayer, almsgiving and fasting
The way to spend the time
of Lent well
1. OPENING PRAYER
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us to
read the Scriptures with the same mind that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the
cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to Your voice in creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people,
above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we, too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and
peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, Son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The Gospel of Ash Wednesday is taken from the Sermon on the Mount and offers us help in understanding the practice of the three works of mercy: prayer, almsgiving and fasting and the way to spend the time of Lent well. The
manner of practicing these three works has changed over the centuries, according to the culture and customs of people and their state of health. Old people today still remember when there was a strict and compulsory fast of forty days throughout Lent. In spite
of changes in the practice of the works of mercy, there still is the human and Christian obligation (i) to share our goods with the poor (almsgiving), (ii) to live in contact with the Creator (prayer) and (iii) to be able to control our urges and desires (fasting).
The words of Jesus on which we meditate can give us the necessary creativity to find new forms of living these three practices so important in the life of Christians.
b) A division of the text to assist
in the reading:
Matthew 6:1: A general key to the understanding of the teaching that follows
Matthew 6:2: How not to go about almsgiving
Matthew 6:3-4: How to go about almsgiving
Matthew 6:5: How not to pray
Matthew 6:6: How to pray
Matthew 6:16: How not
Matthew 6:17-18: How to fast
Jesus said to his disciples: "Take care not to perform righteous
deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I
say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father
who sees in secret will repay you. "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head
and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."
3. A MOMENT OF PRAYERFUL SILENCE
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. SOME QUESTIONS
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What touched you or pleased you most in this text?
b) What is the meaning of Jesus’ initial warning?
c) What does Jesus criticize
and teach about almsgiving? Make a resume for yourself.
d) What does Jesus criticize and teach about prayer? Make a resume for yourself.
e) What does Jesus criticize and
teach about fasting? Make a resume for yourself.
5. FOR THOSE WHO WISH TO GO DEEPER INTO THE THEME
a) The context:
Jesus speaks of three things: almsgiving (Mt 6:1-6), prayer (Mt 6:5-15) and fasting (Mt 6:16-18). These were the three works of mercy of the Jews. Jesus criticizes the fact that they practice these works to be seen by others (Mt 6:1).
He will not allow that the practice of justice and mercy be used as a means to social promotion within the community (Mt 6:2, 5, 16). In the words of Jesus there comes to light a new kind of relationship with God that is revealed to us. He says, “Your
Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you" (Mt 6:4),” Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Mt 6:8), “If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours” (Mt 6:14). Jesus
presents us with a new way of approaching the heart of God. A meditation on His words concerning the works of mercy may help us discover this new way.
b) A commentary on the text:
Matthew 6:1: A general key to an understanding of the teaching that follows
Jesus says, “ Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will
lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” The justice referred to by Jesus is the place where God wants us to be. The way there is found in the Law of God. Jesus warns that it is not enough to observe the law so as to be praised by people. Earlier
He had said, “For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 5:26). In reading these words we must not only think of the Pharisees of Jesus time, but above all
of the Pharisee that is dormant in each one of us. Had Joseph, Mary’s spouse, followed the justice of the law of the Pharisees, he would have had to renounce Mary. But he was just (Mt 1:19), and already possessed the new justice proclaimed by Jesus.
That is why he broke the ancient law and saved Mary’s and Jesus’ lives. The new justice proclaimed by Jesus rests on another foundation, springs from another source. We must build our peace from the inside, not in what we do for God, but in what
God does for us. This is the general key to an understanding of the teaching of Jesus on the works of mercy. In what follows, Matthew applies this general principle to the practice of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Didactically, he first expresses what must
not be and then immediately teaches what should be.
Matthew 6:2: How not to go about almsgiving
The wrong way of giving alms, then and now, is that of doing it in public
so as to be acknowledged and acclaimed by others. We often see on pews of churches the words: Gift of such-and-such a family. On television, politicians love to appear as great benefactors of humanity on occasions of inaugurations of public works at the service
of the community. Jesus says, “Those who act thus have already had their reward.”
Matthew 6:3-4: How to go about almsgiving
The correct way of giving alms
is this: Your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing! In other words, we must give alms in such a way that not even I must feel that I am doing something good that deserves a reward from God and praise from others. Almsgiving is an obligation.
It is a way of sharing something that I have with those who have nothing. In a family, what belongs to one belongs to all. Jesus praises the example of the widow who gave of what was needed for herself (Mk 12:44).
6:5: How not to pray
Speaking of the wrong way of praying, Jesus mentions some strange practices and customs of His day. When the trumpet sounded for morning, midday and evening prayer, there were those who sought
to be in the middle of the road to pray solemnly with arms outstretched so as to be seen by all and thus be considered as pious people. Others took up extravagant poses in the synagogue so as to draw the attention of the community.
Matthew 6:6: How to pray
So as to leave no doubt, Jesus over-emphasizes the manner of praying. He says that we must pray in secret, only before God the Father. No one will see you. Maybe before others you
may even seem to be a person who does not pray. This does not matter! Even of Jesus it was said, “He is not God!” That is because Jesus often prayed at night and did not care what others thought. What matters is to have one’s conscience at
peace and to know that God is the Father who welcomes me, not because of what I do for God or because of the satisfaction that I seek in the eyes of others, who appreciate me as one who is pious and prays.
6:16: How not to fast
Jesus criticizes wrong practices concerning fasting. There were those who bore a sad face, did not wash, wore torn clothes, did not comb their hair, so that all could see that they were fasting
in a perfect manner.
Matthew 6:17-18: How to fast
Jesus suggests the opposite: When you fast, put scent on your head, wash your face, so that no one may know that you
are fasting, only Your Father who is in heaven.
As we said earlier, it is a new manner of accessing the heart of God that is opening before our eyes. For our own interior peace, Jesus does not ask what we do for
God, but what God does for us. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are not currency to buy God’s favor, but are our response of gratitude for the love received and experienced.
c) Further information:
i) The broader context of Matthew s Gospel
Matthew’s Gospel was written for a community of converted Jews who were experiencing a deep crisis of identity
in relation to their past. After their conversion to Jesus, they continued to live according to their old traditions and frequented the synagogue, together with their relatives and friends, just as before. But they suffered because of the strong pressure from
their Jewish friends who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. This tension grew after the year 70 AD. When in 66 AD the revolt of the Jews against Rome broke out, two groups refused to take part, the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians. Both groups held that
going against Rome had nothing to do with the coming of the Messiah, as some thought. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, all the other Jewish groups disappeared. Only the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians remained. Both groups
claimed to be the heirs of the promise of the prophets and, thus, the tension grew between brothers, because of the inheritance. The Pharisees reorganized the rest of the people and took an ever-stronger position against the Christians, who ended by being
excommunicated from the synagogues. This excommunication rekindled the whole problem of identity. Now the Christians were officially and formally separated from the people of the promise. They could no longer frequent their synagogue, their rabbis. And they
asked themselves, “Who are the real people of God: they or us? On whose side is God? Is Jesus really the Messiah?”
Thus, Matthew writes his Gospel (1) for this group of Christians, as a Gospel of consolation
for those who had been excommunicated and persecuted by the Jews, helping them to overcome the trauma of breaking away; (2) as a Gospel of revelation, showing that Jesus is the true Messiah, the new Moses, who fulfills the promises; (3) as a Gospel of the
new practice, showing how they must achieve true justice, greater than the justice of the Pharisees.
ii) A key to the Sermon on the Mount
on the Mount is the first of five sermons in Matthew’s Gospel. It describes the conditions that will allow a person to enter the Kingdom of God: the way in, the new reading of the law, the new way of looking at and practicing the works of mercy; the
new way of living in community. In a word, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus communicates the new way of looking at the things of Life and the Kingdom. The following is a division that serves as a key to reading:
5:1-16: The way in
Mt 5:1-10: The eight Beatitudes help us to see where the kingdom is already present (among the poor and persecuted) and where it will be soon (among the other six groups).
Mt 5:12-16: Jesus addresses His words of consolation to His disciples and warns that anyone who lives the beatitudes will be persecuted (Mt 5:11-12), but his or her life will have meaning because he/she will be the salt of the earth
(Mt 5:13) and the light of the world (Mt 5:14-16).
Mt 5:17-to-6:18: The new relationship with God: A new Justice
Mt 5:17-48: The new justice must be greater than that
of the Pharisees
Jesus radicalizes the law, that is, He brings it back to its roots, to its main and ultimate purpose which is to serve life, justice, love and truth. The commandments of the law point to a new way
of life, avoided by the Pharisees (Mt 5:17-20).
Jesus immediately presents various examples as to how the commandments of the Law of God given to Moses are to be understood: “of old it was said, but I say
to you” (Mt 5:21-48)
Mt 6:1-18: The new justice must not seek reward or merit (This is the Gospel of this Ash Wednesday).
Mt 6:19-34: The new relationship to the
goods of this world: a new vision of creation
Jesus comes to grips with the primary needs of life: food, clothing, house and health. This is the part of life that causes most anxiety in people. Jesus teaches how
to relate to material goods and to the riches of the world: do not accumulate goods (Mt 6:19-21); do not look at the world with sad eyes (Mt 6:22-23); do not serve God and money at the same time (Mt 6:24); do not worry about food and drink (Mt 6:23-34).
Mt 7:1-29: The new relationship with people: a new life in community
Do not seek the straw in your brother’s eye (Mt 7:1-5); do not cast pearls before swine (Mt 7:6); Do not
be afraid of asking for things from God (Mt 7:7-11); observe the golden rule (Mt 7:12); seek the narrow and difficult path (Mt 7:13-14); be wary of false prophets (Mt 7:15-20); do not just talk but do (Mt 7:21-23); the community built on these principles will
stand in spite of raging storms (Mt 7:24-27). The outcome of these words is a new awareness in the face of the scribes and doctors (Mt 7:28-29).
7. FINAL PRAYER
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice what Your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only
listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.