21 March 2022
This sermon was preached by Dr Roland Chia at the Ash Wednesday chapel service at Trinity Theological College.
Today, Trinity Theological College joins Christians all over the world to observe Ash Wednesday or the Day of Ashes, as it is also sometimes called. This special Wednesday is observed by the Latin churches from at least the 11th century, if not earlier.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the most solemn period in the Christian calendar called Great Lent. The great twentieth century Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, describes the significance of this season beautifully:
The Lenten season is meant to kindle a ‘bright sadness’ within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.
Lent is the period of prayerful introspection and repentance.
At the Ash Wednesday service, Christians come forward to receive an imposition of ashes on their foreheads.
The ash symbolises death and repentance. It reminds us of the dust from which we are all formed and to which we shall all return. But the ash also symbolises sorrow and remorse for our sins, our repentance of them, and our resolve to turn from our wicked ways.
During this period of prayerful introspection, we invite the Spirit of God to shine his holy light into our hearts. We pray again and again that ancient prayer of David: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:24).
In the same way that the psalmist cries out to God to search his heart, our passage from the Gospel of Matthew reminds us that nothing should be kept hidden from the searching light of the Spirit.
Not even our most fervent acts of piety and devotion – our praying, our fasting, and our giving may be exempted. We may add to this list our acts of service – our preaching, our worship leading, our entire ministry.
Our passage therefore warns us of the sins that may lurk even in those ‘spiritual’ activities.
What are these sins? And how are we to approach the Lord and serve him in the way that truly honours and glorifies his name?
Allow me to share a few thoughts with you this morning.
Our passage highlights three religious practices of the Jews in Jesus’ day: giving to the needy (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-8) and fasting (6:16-18). These practices are also basic to Christian spirituality, which the Church has inherited from the Old Testament and Judaism.
In this passage, Jesus makes the important point that there is a proper and an improper way of performing these significant religious acts.
Jesus gives a stern warning to his disciples: ‘Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them’ (6:1). He instructs his followers to ‘be careful’, to ‘be watchful’ – in other words, to exercise vigilance over their spiritual lives.
He then proceeds to show how prayer, fasting and giving can be done to draw attention to oneself, and to win the approval and praise of others. He warns how even spiritual activities such as prayer and fasting can bring dishonour to God.
There are those, he says, who would ‘sound their trumpets’ when they give to the poor. They do their giving with much fanfare and in the most public of places – in the synagogues and in the streets – so that they might be seen and praised (6:2).
Similarly, there are those who, when they pray, would stand at the spot where they are most visible – just so that they might be seen by others (6:5). And there are people who would dramatize their fasting by ‘disfiguring their faces’, so that people would applaud them for their sacrificial act of devotion.
I think it would not be too difficult to find contemporary examples of Christians who would parade their piety or their ministries in order to attract attention and admiration.
This passage therefore brings to light those insidious carnal impulses and motivations that may lurk behind our most pious and spiritual activities.
It warns us to the twin dangers of vanity and hypocrisy.
Time and time again, Jesus turns the spotlight on people who make a public display of their piety because they want to be seen by others. In other words, it is for reasons of vanity that they make a big show of their devotion to God.
In the medieval account of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride comes right at the top of the list – the first of the seven lieutenants, if you like.
However, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas maintains that it is vanity, not pride that should top the list. For Aquinas pride is a general vice, animating and energising all the other vices.
According to Aquinas, pride is ‘the appetite for excellence in excess of right reason’. What Aquinas means by this is that God has created us with the desire for excellence or perfection. But pride has twisted this desire out of shape. Pride has perverted God’s good gifts to us.
Pride also results in an inordinate esteem of oneself. It is inordinate because it is contrary to the truth.
Pride bloats our egos. It exaggerates our abilities. It creates illusions of greatness and grandeur. Pride nourishes self-delusion.
Pride produces vanity. As someone has put it, ‘vanity is the outward manifestation of pride’s interior rot.’
The Greek word for ‘vanity’ means ‘empty glory’. So, the vain person presents himself to the world as having the qualities he does not in fact possess. He insists that everyone should regard him as the person he is not.
And this brings us to the second way in which Jesus describes the religious exhibitionist. He or she is a hypocrite.
The word that is translated as ‘hypocrite’ is used to describe an actor who wears a mask. A hypocrite pretends to be someone he is not. The religious exhibitionist pretends to be righteous so that he would win the approval and praise of others.
These carnal impulses can distort and pollute even the most spiritual of activities such as prayer, which is the creature’s loving communion with his Creator. They can corrupt our most fervent acts of service.
Pride, vanity and hypocrisy do this by distorting the Christian’s primary motivation for performing these acts. They turn these holy activities, which are meant to glorify God, into deceitful acts of self-aggrandisement.
Pride, vanity and hypocrisy therefore fuel the sin of self-idolatry. The great Augustine defines sin as incurvatus in se, a turning inwards, towards the self, making it all-important – the centre of the universe.
Pride, vanity and hypocrisy make holy activities such as prayer and fasting profane.
How are we to avoid these corrosive impulses that could make a mockery of our relationship with God and ultimately ruin our spiritual lives?
The answer that Jesus gives in this passage is deceptively simple: acts of righteousness, he says, must be done in secret.
So, with regard to almsgiving Jesus said: ‘When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (6:3-4).
He repeats the same instruction in relation to prayer and fasting.
In verse 6, he asks his disciples to go into their chambers and shut the door when they pray. And in verse 17, he asks them to anoint their heads and wash their faces when they fast so that it would not be obvious to anyone that they are abstaining from food.
How are we to understand Jesus’ instructions?
There are some religious activities and ministries that are by nature public, such as corporate worship and preaching. They cannot be done ‘in secret’, ‘behind closed doors’, with no one watching.
In fact, many aspects of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching at the synagogues, his healing miracles and his ministry of exorcism – are all very public.
Furthermore, doesn’t this instruction contradict what Jesus had said earlier? For in the previous chapter in Matthew, Jesus instructed his disciples to ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (5:16)?
I think the best way to understand Jesus’ instruction is to see it as the exact opposite – the antithesis – of performing religious acts just so that they can be seen by others.
So, praying, giving and fasting in secret does not mean that they cannot be done in public view. It means that they should never be done for public approval and praise.
To put this differently, to pray or fast in secret is to do these religious activities out of a genuine devotion to God, and not for reasons of vanity.
In this passage, Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples that God the Father sees in secret. This means that God notices the deeds that we do even when we are not consciously aware that he is watching.
But the God who sees in secret does not merely see our outward actions. He penetrates beneath the surface to the very essence of things.
So, the God who sees in secret also knows the secret motivations of our hearts. Our attitudes and intentions are transparent to him.
And it is our attitudes, motivations, intentions that matter more to him than the externalities of our deeds.
Although others may be deceived into thinking that our outward acts of piety truly reflect the devotion of our hearts, God is never deceived. He sees us for who we are, not who we pretend to be. He unmasks every falsehood and exposes every lie.
As Jeremiah reminds us: ‘I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds’ (17:10).
How are we to protect ourselves from the deadly sins of vanity and hypocrisy? How are we to protect ourselves from self-deception and self-idolatry?
If you read the spiritual writings of the Orthodox theologians and ascetics, you will find one recurring theme: ‘watchfulness’.
The Greek term that is used by these writers is nepsis, which means sobriety or wakefulness. Nepsis therefore signifies spiritual attentiveness and vigilance.
The theologians and spiritual writers of the Christian East base their reflection on nepsis on the command that Jesus gave to his disciples found in Matthew 26:41: ‘Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak’.
To be watchful is to be present where we are – at this specific place, at this particular moment in time. The Eastern writers call this ‘the sacrament of the present moment’.
Most importantly, to be watchful is to be present to one’s self. It is to see one’s self realistically. It is to see one’s self truthfully.
Watchfulness, the Orthodox spiritual writers tell us, is the means, the path to self-knowledge.
A watchful Christian will, by the grace of God, see himself for who he is. Watchfulness will bring to light the pretensions, the falsehoods and the untruths in his life.
Watchfulness leads to self-knowledge. And with self-knowledge comes the power of discernment.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says that the watchful Christian – the ‘neptic saint’ – develops a healthy sense of spiritual taste.
Just as the physical sense of taste, if healthy, tells a man at once whether the food is mouldy or wholesome, so the spiritual taste … enables a man to distinguish between the varying thoughts and impulses within him.
It is only when the Christian has developed a healthy spiritual taste – discernment – that he can ‘guard the heart, by shutting the door against temptations or provocations of the enemy’.
It is only when we are constantly watchful and vigilant that we can guard our hearts against the subtle carnal impulses of vanity and hypocrisy.
Lent is an invitation to make a concerted effort to do this: to allow the Spirit of the Lord to interrogate our souls and to remove the ‘darknesses’ that lurk there.
But the discipline of nepsis must not be confined to just the forty days of Lent. It should be an essential part of our daily lives, an integral aspect of Christian discipleship.
So let us be sober and vigilant. Let us watch over our spiritual lives attentively, and in so doing allow ‘the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.