Two Sundays ago, Jesus said to us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) What drove Jesus in his preaching was a concern to get us to change our ways that we might enter the Kingdom, which he proclaimed to be ‘close at hand,’ and so close is it that we can aspire to enter it even now. (Matthew 4:17) These scribes and Pharisees that Jesus spoke of, were among those that the people of his day would have held up as the epitome of righteousness; they were good people. Yet, Jesus says to us here that we must go further than that, further than just being good; we must do more than ordinarily good people do, if we wish to live in God’s Kingdom. (C.f.: Mark 10:21) In last Sunday’s Gospel and the previous one, putting the focus on our neighbour, Jesus went on to teach us what he had in mind: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-44, 46-47) And he said many other things like that, that urge us to go the ‘extra mile’ towards our neighbour. (Matthew 5:41)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shifts the focus from our neighbour, to look at our relationship with God. Using Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting, those fundamental and ordinary ways by which Jewish piety gave expression to their relationship with God, Jesus illustrates how ‘our righteousness’ might exceed that of the ordinarily good. In what follows, Jesus speaks of ‘hypocrites.’ (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) We are so used to thinking of the Pharisees as hypocrites, that in our language the two words have become synonymous. So, we tend to think of what Jesus has to say here as an attack on the Pharisees, and so as something that has nothing to do with us. (C.f.: Matthew 23) But Jesus does not mean here to be criticising the Pharisees; in referring to hypocrites, Jesus is not even saying here that this is what the Pharisees do. What he wants to do is highlight the more in our relationship with God that we must do to get into his Kingdom: “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), the reward being life with him in heaven, life in the Kingdom. (C.f.: Matthew 5:45) What will bring us undone here in our relationship with God is our own hypocrisy, and it will do us no good in our relationship with God to try to excuse ourselves and shift the blame by pointing to the hypocrisy of others. (C.f.: Genesis 3:12-13) For, as the Psalm puts it: “God knows the secrets of the heart.” (Psalm 44:21)
So, in each of the three different ways of relating to God, what Jesus wants to teach us is how to keep our hearts pure, how to ensure that among the mixed motives that govern all we do, the better one/the more righteous one will carry the greater weight. In each of these, Jesus speaks of ‘what the hypocrites do.’ These are things we are all prone to do, and not just the Pharisees; these we must guard against. (C.f.: Genesis 4:6-7) It’s nice to be thought well of when we do good things, and for the most part, it does not detract from the goodness of the things we do. But it is another matter when we do good things in order to be thought well of. For, in this case, the relationship we seek to cultivate is not our relationship with God, but our relationship with those whose approval we seek to obtain. In our relationship with God, we need to focus solely on God. In each of the three different aspects of our piety, Jesus shows us how to keep our eyes fixed on God alone. (C.f.: Psalm 123:1-2)
For the most part, Jesus’ solution is to keep what we do hidden from the eyes of others. It’s not that others shouldn’t see what we do; we can all be edified by the good example of others. But Jesus’ concern here is not welfare of these others, but to have us protect our motives for doing good things by keeping them pure: we are to do them just because they are good and they are good to do, and so we should do them regardless of who is watching. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:69) In regard to our relationship with God, we do the good because it pleases God; what other people think of what we do doesn’t come into it. And so in our almsgiving and in our prayer and in our fasting and in all our other good deeds, Jesus recommends that we try to do them secretly as a way of protecting ourselves from being seduced off into seeking the good esteem of others. This is in line with Old Testament teaching, which says, as our First Reading put it: ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments.’ (Joel 2:12-13) For only God sees what we do there.
So, just to look at fasting, for this is what we most associate with this time of Lent, to see how we might go the extra mile. Jesus says, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18) The prophet Isaiah tells of what God saw when he looked at his People’s fasting: “The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won't get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, GOD, would like?” They are all pious and holy before the Lord, yet with their neighbour they are all hard and mean; here is hypocrisy in full bloom. So Isaiah goes on, speaking for the Lord: “This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
The fasting God wants of us is to put our neighbour ahead of ourselves; it is a personal going without to help out a neighbour, a fasting from our own ego-driven desires. (C.f.: Luke 10:25-37) This is the sacrifice acceptable to the Lord, as the Psalm has it: “Make justice your sacrifice, and trust in Lord.” (Psalm 4:5) The Lord will see the hardship in going without, the cost and the inconvenience and perhaps even some risk to ourselves, and we may have to leave it with the Lord to see that it does not bring us to harm; our is ‘to give without counting the cost.’ (Ignatius of Loyola) These sacrifices do not have to be grand heroic things, though of course they may be, but are there to be found in the everyday ordinariness of life: as Benedict puts it, “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else.” Doing this will lead us to God and life with him in the Kingdom. (Rule of St Benedict 72:2, 12) This is easy to do for someone we love, but the real sacrifice comes in doing it for those we don’t much care for. That we don’t much care for them is something we can keep to ourselves; all that others should see is that we are graciously generous with all. (Rule of St Benedict 5:16-17. C.f.: John 13:34) That others are unaware of what it costs us to be such thoroughly nice chap with all we meet is what makes special what we have to offer to the Lord. This, I would suggest, is the something more that Jesus is urging us to do, the something ‘beyond our usual measure of service’ that Benedict urges us ‘to offer to God of our own free will with all the joy of the Holy Spirit,’ the little extra somethings that no else needs know about, except only God. (Rule of St Benedict 49:6)