As we begin Lent, the Church in today’s Gospel recommends to us the three area traditionally associated with religious practice in Jesus’ day: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting. The Gospel starts off with a general principle: ‘Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:1) It then goes through each of these three practices and shows how this principle is applied in each of them. Immediately following this Gospel passage we are told, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20) In some senses, the ‘moth and rust’ that destroys and the ‘thieves’ who break into to steal are that within ourselves that would see us parade our ‘righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.’ This passage goes on: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) The reason why we give alms, pray and fast is not about the ‘reward’; it is about our ‘heart.’
The piece left out of today’s Gospel, where Jesus teaches us how to pray what is now called ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ shows us how to pray so that, in regard to prayer, we might practice our righteousness in a way that does cultivate a right disposition in our heart for us to have a proper relationship with God. (C.f.: Luke 18:14) It starts off with: “Our Father.” (Matthew 6:9) (Here I must acknowledge the limitations of our language when it comes to relationships — to use a term less gender-specific here would seem to interfere with the personal and specific nature of the parental relationship.) The relationship we are to cultivate with God is a filial one, a relationship of intimacy and trust, and out of which we are to see all and everyone from the perspective of being members of God’s family. The prayer begins: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:9-10) — it’s not about me, but about God our Father and what he wants; we have to put ourselves aside. Later Jesus will say to us, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)
Doing God’s will brings us into a right relationship not only with God our Father, but also with all others who do God’s will — we need to come to see them as our sisters and brothers. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) acknowledges our dependence on God, as a child is on its parents — if we are going to survive, it is only because God cares for us as a Father does for his children. (Psalm 103:13) If we are to be in right relationship with God, we need to know of his love for us and be willing to let ourselves be dependent on it, and then do what we can to cultivate our love of him, the only response we can make that is fitting. Jesus prefaced his teaching on how we are to pray with: “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8) Later Jesus will go on to supplement this, saying: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33) This throws us back onto the opening words of the prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” (Matthew 6:10) — we are called to see that what befalls us as God’s will (c.f.: Hebrews 12:5ff), and simply put all our trust in his Providence; when we pray, we do not need to try to inveigle God with sweet sounding words, but rather adopt an attitude of trust in God. This can be a hard ask, especially when times are tough. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us” (Matthew 6:12) — our Father forgives us because he loves us; if we are to be a true son/daughter of our Father, if we are to be like him (Genesis 1:27; 1 John 3:2), we are to do as our Father does and love as he loves, and love those he loves … as members of a family are called to do. Thus, in cultivating a right relationship with God, all our other relationships are transformed, too. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13) — here we are to remind ourselves that we are on a journey, that we are on pilgrimage towards our ‘heavenly homeland,’ as the Letter to Hebrews has it. (Hebrews 11:16) If here is not okay, it doesn’t matter. For we are moving on from here. Or as John Lennon once put it: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” More importantly, we need to remind ourselves that it is God who leads us; we need have no fear. (Psalm 23:1-4) Doing all this as we pray is how we practice our righteousness in prayer.
In our almsgiving and our fasting, and in whatever other ways we might choose to practice our righteousness, we are called to do something similar, that we may likewise cultivate a right disposition in our heart so as to be in a proper relationship with God and with our neighbour. (Matthew 22:37-40) We ought to be doing this all the time, and not just in Lent as today’s reading at the beginning of Lent might seem to suggest. But, as St Benedict puts it: “Few have the strength for this.” (Rule of St Benedict 49:2) So he urges us to try to do so for at least this short time of Lent. He has a number of suggestions that we might do to properly practice our righteousness during this time: ‘refuse to indulge evil habits, devote ourselves to prayer with tears, and to reading,’ and to other forms of self-denial such as fasting. (Rule of St Benedict 49:4-7) These we are to do humbly, rather than trying to impress others with our holiness. (Rule of St Benedict 4:62) In doing these things in this way, after the manner in which the Lord has taught us how to pray, what is being recommended to us is that we foster that which Benedict calls the ‘good zeal’ of monks. (Rule of St Benedict 72:2-3) This does not only bring us ‘to God and everlasting life,’ which we all desire (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:15ff), but it also brings us there ‘all together’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:2, 11), that is, practising our good zeal will lead us to the heavenly homeland where God is our Father and we are all sisters and brothers. This we can realise, at least partially at any rate, even here in the now of this world. This is the whole point of trying to ‘practice our righteousness’; it is not about being seen to be good.