Ash Wednesday – Beware!

Notes: Lenten devotional for the Great Plains Cabinet and Conference Staff

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “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. “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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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. But 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. “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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so 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. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Theater Style Masks

We begin our Lenten season with an admonition from Jesus, “BEWARE!”

The word BEWARE alerts us to be “wary, cautious, or careful of something.”

BEWARE sign we have all seen at some time or another is, “Beware of Dog.” I’ve seen a sign that says, “Forget the Dog. Beware of Owner!” 

We have also seen many “CAUTION” signs alerting us to Slippery Floors, X-Ray Radiation, Hot Surfaces or Liquids, Restricted Areas, Low Overhead Clearances, Hazardous Materials, Student Drivers, Children at Play, Venomous Snakes in the Area, No Trespassing, Work Areas, and in our part of the world, Icy Roads. 

Today’s gospel reading in Matthew starts out with the admonishment to BEWARE, not of animals, or people, or conditions, but to BEWARE of our own inward motivations for the practice of our piety.  

Jesus points out in today’s reading that we can practice our piety hypocritically or authentically. He borrows a term “hypocrite” from Greek theater to make his warning to beware of ourselves.  

I have taken two groups from the Great Plains Conference to the Holy Land in the past two years. One site we visited was the city of Sepphoris. I never heard of the city of Sepphoris until my trips to Israel, but the city is very important to the life of Jesus. Some biblical scholars believe Sepphoris to be the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. 

Sepphoris was one of the Galilean centers in the region of Galilee. The city is perched like a bird on a 400-foot hill that overlooks a valley, hence, the city’s perched location explains its Hebrew name, Zippori (bird). 

Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, selected Sepphoris as the provincial capital for his government in Galilee and had it rebuilt after the original city was burned.  

Our tour guide said that Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was a poor community with little to no sustainable work opportunities. Because of the scarcity of work in Nazareth, Joseph and Jesus would travel four miles from Nazareth to Sepphoris to work as stone masons and builders for Herod Antipas’ city rebuilding project. 

A notable structure in Sepphoris still stands. It is a Roman theatre that held over 4,000 people.

As a boy and young man growing up working and visiting Sepphoris, Jesus no doubt was able to see some theatre while in town. Theater actors wore masks. Their masks allowed them to take on pseudo-identities, or fake identities. Behind a mask, actors could take on the persona of characters very different from their true selves. 

The Greek word for outwardly contradicting one’s true self is hypokritai, from which the English the word “hypocrite” is derived. The actor’s masked performances were meant to win the acclaim, admiration, and favor of their audiences. 

Jesus teaches that authentic spirituality is not meant to win the acclaim, admiration, or favor of the people by pretending to be pious. True piety acts in secret because it is addressed to God and participates in God’s saving action in the world which is always visible and public. 

Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting were the three most common practices of piety within Judaism. Jesus does not create and suggest these as new practices, instead he redirects them to their true meaning and frees them from hypocritical motives, leading the practices back to their intentions as authentic expressions of love, commitment, and worship to God. Jesus says, “when,” not “if” you give, pray, and fast.” The expectation is that his audience gave alms, prayed, and fasted as a deeply ingrained part of their normal life. 

Giving alms refers to a long tradition and practice of giving money to help the poor. 

Prayer was a common practice at all levels of Hebrew society.

And fasting is presented in the Old Testament as a spiritual practice of penance and seeking God. There are many people in the bible that practiced fasting, including Jesus himself. The stories of Nehemiah and Ester combine prayer and fasting to seek God’s favor and deliverance. The prophet Isaiah connects fasting with the practice of justice.

Contemporary history remembers two leaders that also practiced fasting as an act of justice like Mohandas Ghandi[1] and Ceasar Chavez.[2]

The practices of giving, prayer, and fasting are acts of love and total surrender to God. They are secret, hidden, not visible, and enclosed. Jesus instructs his hearers to not seek public reward for their piety, but the reward that comes from God. 

Their secret practices of piety plant seeds of the kingdom in the lives of others that will one day take root and give birth to a peaceable and just world envisioned by God for creation. The secrets acts of giving alms, praying, and fasting imperceptible by the people but activate God’s saving power which becomes visible and public. 

As a public figure, I always have to be mindful of my inward motivations behind my Facebook posts, my blogs, my sermons, and my words. Maybe you struggle with the same issue. 

As Christ followers there are many things we do in secret because we love and are committed to God and God’s vision of a world. 

We give, pray and fast because we seek the God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. A world described by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 58, where workers earn livable wages, where fighting and warring ceases, where the bonds of injustice are loosened, where the yoke of oppression is shattered, where the hungry have bread, where the homeless have homes, where the naked have clothes, and where the afflicted have their needs met.  

This is the vision of God’s coming kingdom that has been initiated by Christ and is on the way toward fulfillment that captures our lives and imagination and that drives and inspires our giving, our prayers, and our fasting. 

In a world, where we are constantly goaded to beware of imminent and external dangers on the other side of our politics, our religion, our borders, our oceans, our theologies, our economics, and our ethnicities and race, Jesus reminds us again this Lent that a good place to start BEWARING is with what is truly going on within our hearts and minds in our relationship with God.  


[1] Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (The Great Soul) resorted to hunger strikes beginning in 1932 as a method of non-violent resistance against the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste and in 1948 to persuade Hindus and Muslims living in New Delhi to work toward peace. On January 30, less than two weeks after breaking the fast for peace between Hindu’s and Muslims, Ghandi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on his way to an evening prayer meeting.

[2] Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union – “La Raza Unida” – non-violently sought worker rights and dignity for all farm workers. Learning from and applying Ghandi’s non-violent resistance methods, Chavez went on a 25-day water only fast in 1968, repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days to protest the use of agricultural pesticides that endangered farm workers, consumers, and the environment. He broke the fast when Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, and her children, Kerry, 27, Christopher, 25, and Rory, 20, and presented Chavez with a piece of Mexican semita (sesame) bread. 

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