A Brief Sermon Seeds Ash Wednesday Reflection: Hypocrisy

Wednesday, February 14, 2024
Ash Wednesday | Year B
(Liturgical Color: Violet)

Lectionary Citations
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 • Psalm 51:1-17 • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Focus Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Focus Theme: Hypocrisy
Series: Say No (Click here for the series overview.)

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

You are God’s beloved dust.

It’s a phrase that tends to be uttered once a year on this day. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, we are reminded. Our lives take us full circle. It’s a somber and even jarring thought. In recent years, the words have been softened to say, “you are God’s beloved dust. “ Still dust, but divinely held, valued, and loved dust. In some ways, Ash Wednesday can be the most quiet and disquieting observance on the Christian calendar. Even Good Friday and Holy Saturday are tempered by the unshakable knowledge that resurrection is on the way. Further, those days of Holy Week are more about Jesus and the fragility of his physical life. Ash Wednesday is about ours.

If we are only dust, then what does it matter? The scripture passages from the lectionary remind us that our lives have purpose and meaning. We represent Christ in the world. Our very existence is a blessing in the community of creation. The Holy One notices our actions, and we have the ability to bring honor or dishonor to God. We do not live in vain. Rather, we live in service and love to God and one another. Jesus enters the world, in part, to model this, and their teaching reframes the biblical narrative on how to be fully human in relationship and compassion.

The Sermon on the Mount, in its clarion call to a radically different way of life, does unmask the sinfulness of the life we now live—turned in on ourselves as we are. Indeed, it makes our need for God’s grace very clear, but the message also moves and motivates us toward the higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us. It does so not by giving a set of prescriptions to be followed in a legalistic manner but rather examples of life oriented by the love of God and neighbor. The living of the law of love is illumined by its application to a few “focal instances.” In every case, the disciple is urged to follow in God’s way by doing as God does: loving without limits (5:44–45), doing justice, and being merciful (5:7) and forgiving (6:12).
Anna Case Winters

Again, the precepts that Jesus shares are not new even if they are revolutionary. He deliberately notes the intention is not for a new law but for a full and complete understanding of the existing law of the covenant. Jesus emphasizes who we are to be and become rather than attempting to provide an exhaustive list of what humans are allowed or not allowed to do. The commentary offered in amplifying his guidance encourages followers to apply the foundational principles beyond the specific examples Jesus names. All aspects of human life and interaction need reexamination.

Even one’s practices of piety receive a reorientation. Here follows a discussion of the practices of authentic piety as they may be seen in relation to almsgiving, praying, fasting, and putting possessions in their place. The word here translated as “piety” (6:1) is actually the Greek word dikaiosynē, which is translated “righteousness” in the chapter before. This chapter is a continuation of the discussion of “a higher righteousness,” and the use of the same term for both “piety” and “righteousness” underscores that there is “no distinction between devotion to God, expressed in acts of worship (6:1–18), and acts of personal integrity, justice, and love directed to human beings, all of which are called dikaiosynē.” The term usually translated “righteousness” can equally well be translated “justice.” It appears five times in the Sermon on the Mount alone (5:5, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). This theme is so prominent in the Gospel of Matthew that it has been called the “Gospel of Justice.” Justice includes a (re)ordering of relationships with God, with one another, and in the social/political arena. A right ordering will adjust toward equality and reciprocity and a general sharing of resources. Patriarchy, hierarchy, and inequitable distribution will be overturned. The emphasis is on creating a new kind of community where justice prevails.

Anna Case Winters

Pursuit of righteousness and justice necessitates an orientation toward the Sovereign One and our neighbor together. Right relationship with God is inextricable from our communal ties, attitudes, and actions. The covenantal relationship is shaped like a cross with horizontal and vertical connection. Perhaps that formation is the most poignant aspect of the instruction that Jesus will later provide the disciples: to follow his way is to pick up one’s cross and maintain that dual focus.

Being deliberately attentive to God and others requires a shift away from self-centeredness, self-validation, and self-sufficiency. To be clear, to love God and neighbor does also hinge on loving oneself. Nurture and nourishment of the self is a necessary and faithful choice. In this teaching on hypocrisy, Jesus helps to inform his listeners on the distinction between putting self over God and others rather than in relationship to them.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, the problem of hypocrisy receives more considered attention … .Dan Via has argued that in Matthew, hypocrisy is not only a matter of deception of others but also a matter of self-deception. The “hypocrites” in these verses make a show of righteousness. They are motivated by desire for the praise of others (6:2). This show, along with the praise they receive, allows them to deceive themselves that they are righteous.
Anna Case Winters

Ultimately, Jesus’ words encourage embracing our authentic selves, centering community, and realigning toward the Holy One. Our dusty lives are too precious to do otherwise.

Say no to hypocrisy.

Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
This series encourages the church to say no. To balance that, the response should invite the gathered community to say yes. For Ash Wednesday, let us say yes to authenticity. Encourage worshippers to share in a word or two what that might mean for them.
In a small gathering, this may be done verbally with all assembled. In a larger setting, this may be done in small groups. Honor the choice to process internally and invite (not dictate) participation. Online worshippers should be specifically asked to share in the comments or chat functions based on platform.

Worship Ways Liturgical Resources

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.