Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21 (NRSV)
Chapter 6"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. Verse 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. Verse 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, Verse 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Verse 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. Verse 6But 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.
Verse 16"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. Verse 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, Verse 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Verse 19"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; Verse 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. Verse 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
At first reading, this traditional Ash Wednesday gospel reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seems to present the correct inward-looking somber fit. With its focus on the practice of piety—paying humble attention to matters of righteousness, the proper conduct of giving, prayer, and fasting—we might seem to be directed to just the proper seriousness to accompany this beginning of our Lenten journey.
Yet our reading’s concluding words, inviting us to consider where our heart is truly centered, may give some caution about a journey that looks solely or overly inward. That caution resides especially in the centering words of our Lord’s Prayer—omitted in the reading (verses 7–15)—which would encourage us to focus instead on the mercy of our Father in heaven, on God’s kingdom coming among us in the doing of God’s will, and on God’s gift of daily life-giving bread, all of which enable us to live in mutual forgiving relationships in our world. Now that might be a fitting way to center our reflections for this journey.
Our Father in heaven, teach us to live as our Lord taught us to pray, with our heart centered on the treasure of your love and forgiveness that renew and sustain us for each day of our journey. Amen.