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Monday, February 23, 2009

+ ASH WEDNESDAY + Lent, 2009 +

Lexegete ™ | Years A/B/C

Ash Wednesday | February 25, 2009

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17 (1)
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Prayer of the Day

Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Call forth our prayers and acts of kindness, and strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation

Return to the | LORD, your God,
who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in | steadfast love. (Joel 2:13)

1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

After his Baptism, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted by Satan (Mt. 4:1-11, Mk1:12f., Lk. 4:1-13). Our Lord's fast was not, however, originally associated with the Lenten season, which has its roots in the fasting and other ascetical disciplines undertaken by catechumens in preparation for Baptism at Easter. These pre-Easter exercises can be traced at least to the second century; at first they lasted only one or two days, and only in the fourth century Festal Letters of St. Athanasius do we first hear of a forty-day period of fasting. Even so, the reckoning of Lent as a forty-day period has never been established throughout the whole church: the Eastern Churches spread the season over eight or nine weeks.

A penitential season of exactly forty days was made the rule at Rome in the sixth century (before the time of Gregory the Great); this was accomplished by including in the Lenten fast the four days before the first Sunday in Lent. (The Sundays in Lent do not count as fast- days; all Sundays, being commemorations of Easter, are feast-days.)

The name "Ash Wednesday" derives from the medieval custom of blessing ashes which were used to mark the foreheads of the faithful as a symbol of penitence. The reformed churches have generally discontinued this ceremony, which they felt did not accord well with the Gospel command (in the Roman and Sarum Missals the Gospel appointed is Mt. 6:16-18).

1b. TEXT: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Giving to the Needy

6:1 “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.

2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The Lord's Prayer

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when 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…..

16 “And 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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.
Lay Up Treasures in Heaven

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust [1] destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

[1] 6:19 Or worm; also verse 20


1Προσέχετε [δὲ] τὴν δικαιοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς: εἰ δὲ μή γε, μισθὸν οὐκ ἔχετε παρὰ τῷ πατρὶ ὑμῶν τῷ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. 2Οταν οὖν ποιῇς ἐλεημοσύνην, μὴ σαλπίσῃς ἔμπροσθέν σου, ὥσπερ οἱ ὑποκριταὶ ποιοῦσιν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ ἐν ταῖς ῥύμαις, ὅπως δοξασθῶσιν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν. 3σοῦ δὲ ποιοῦντος ἐλεημοσύνην μὴ γνώτω ἡ ἀριστερά σου τί ποιεῖ ἡ δεξιά σου, 4ὅπως ᾖ σου ἡ ἐλεημοσύνη ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ: καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι. 5Καὶ ὅταν προσεύχησθε, οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταί: ὅτι φιλοῦσιν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ ἐν ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν ἑστῶτες προσεύχεσθαι, ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν. 6σὺ δὲ ὅταν προσεύχῃ, εἴσελθε εἰς τὸ ταμεῖόν σου καὶ κλείσας τὴν θύραν σου πρόσευξαι τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ: καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.….

16Οταν δὲ νηστεύητε, μὴ γίνεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταὶ σκυθρωποί, ἀφανίζουσιν γὰρ τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύοντες: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν. 17σὺ δὲ νηστεύων ἄλειψαί σου τὴν κεφαλὴν καὶ τὸ πρόσωπόν σου νίψαι, 18ὅπως μὴ φανῇς τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύων ἀλλὰ τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυφαίῳ: καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυφαίῳ ἀποδώσει σοι. 19Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, ὅπου σὴς καὶ βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται διορύσσουσιν καὶ κλέπτουσιν: 20θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ, ὅπου οὔτε σὴς οὔτε βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται οὐ διορύσσουσιν οὐδὲ κλέπτουσιν: 21ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρός σου, ἐκεῖ ἔσται καὶ ἡ καρδία σου.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition © 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition © 1975, United Bible Societies, London

2. ANALYSIS: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Gospel for Ash Wednesday, a section of the Sermon on the Mount, is a short catena of what Bultmann calls "Rules of Piety" (cf.5:23f., 23:16-22; Mk. 11:25; Lk. 17:3f.) They contain very little that is foreign to the best in contemporary Judaism. The section may be outlined as follows:

Introduction: Mt. 6:1 - Ostentatious piety is condemned.
l. On Almsgiving: 6:2-4.
2. On Prayer: 6:5-6.
3. On Fasting: 6:16-18.
4. On Treasures: 6:19-21.

Verses 1-6,16-18 are peculiar to Matthew's Gospel. The content of the sixth logion of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is similar to that of 1-6,16-18: "His disciples asked him and said to him: do you wish us to fast? And in what way shall we pray (and) give alms? And what observances shall we keep with respect to eating? Jesus said: Do not speak a lie and do not do what you hate, because everything is manifest before Heaven. For there is nothing hidden which shall no be made manifest, and there is nothing covered that shall remain without being revealed" [cf. Mt. 10:26, Lk. 12:2].

The content of these "rules" may well derive from Jesus himself, but their formulation is due to the early Church. The striking parallelism exhibited by the "rules" is clear evidence of redactorial activity, either of Matthew or of some earlier collector of Jesus' sayings.

To Matthew himself are doubtless due the introduction (6:1)
and the insertion of the Lord's Prayer (6:7-15).

Each of the first three "rules" consists of two brief commands, one negative and one positive. The negative commands enjoin the disciples not to imitate the ostentatious behavior of the hypocrites who perform their religious duties in public in order to gain a reputation for piety (hopos phanosin tois anthropois [ doxasthosin hupo ton anthropon]); solemn assurance is given after each injunction that there is no further reward for hypocritical behavior: amen lego humin , apechousin ton misthon auton . The negative commands are couched in the plural, but the positive ones are in the singular, as if in them the Lord is addressing each individual disciple. Unlike hypocrites, Jesus' followers are to perform their religious duties with due modesty; their reward will be God's approval.

Mt. 6:1 - prosechete [de] tein dikaiosunen humon mei poiein emprosthen ton anthropon pros to theathenai autois - "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them" (AILL) - Dikaiosune is a very important word in the NT. In the Pauline Epistles it is used of God's righteousness, but here (and in Mt. 5:10,20) the meaning is quite concrete: right conduct before God.

It thus serves as a simple shorthand for the acts of piety mentioned in the following verses. - - The root of theathenai appears in English "theater"; the meaning of the Greek verb is to look over, to regard (with attention and surprise), rather than simply to see.

6:2 - hotan oun poies 'eleeimosunein - "Thus, when you give alms..." (AILL) - Almsgiving had an important place in Jewish piety. Tobit 12:8 runs, "It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin."

- - me salpiseis emprosthen sou... - "sound no trumpet before you" (AILL) - There is no evidence for supposing that the rich were accustomed to blow horns to summon the poor in order to give them alms. The blowing of horns did play a part in fasts, but this was a ceremonial matter. Jesus is merely telling his disciples not to call attention to themselves when giving alms to the poor; we might paraphrase this saying as "Don't ring the church bells every time you put a dollar in the collection plate." -- hupokritai - found in vss. 2,5, and 16; the basic meaning is "one who explains or interprets," hence actor. The word had originally a neutral connotation, but in the NT only the sense "one who acts insincerely" is found.

6:3 - me gnoto he aristera sou ti poiei he dexia sou - "do not let your left hand know what your right is doing" (AILL) - In the Bible, as in many ancient cultures, the right hand is regarded as the hand of strength and of blessing (cf. Job 40:14;,Gen. 48:14), while the left hand is considered unlucky,unclean, even deadly (Judges 3:15,21; II Sam. 20:9f.). This being so, it is at least conceivable that this saying means "Don't let your left hand, which is accustomed to doing evil, prevent your right hand from doing good." However, it is more likely that we have here a simple exhortation to secrecy. The saying also occurs in logion 62 of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

6:4,6,18 - en to krypto kai ho pater sou ho blepon en to krypto apodosei soi (vs. 18 has kryphaio for krypto). - "(so that your alms may be) in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you." (AILL) - The phrase 'en to phanero is absent from the best ancient manuscripts; it was no doubt added by pious scribes wishing to make the antithetical parallelism with the preceding en to krupto more explicit. The point of all the "Rules of Piety," however, is not the public nature of the Father's reward but its superiority to mere human approbation.

6:5 - hoti philousin 'en tais synagogais kai 'en tais goniais ton plateion estotes proseuchesthai - "for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners" (AILL) - Standing was the usual attitude of prayer among both Jews and Greeks. 'Estotes may represent a Hebrew word meaning continue or persist; if so, Jesus is referring to the length of the hypocrites' prayers. It seems more likely, in view of the context, that Jesus is condemning their love of publicity, although there is in fact no Jewish evidence for the practice of praying in the streets except during public fasts.

6:6 - su de hotan proseuchei, eiselthe eis to tameion sou kai kleisas ten thuran sou proseuxai to patri sou - "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God (who is in secret)" (AILL) - This is a reminiscence of Isaiah 26:20 - "come, my people, enter your rooms, shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a while until the wrath has passed by" - with "pray" in place of "hide." Jesus takes public worship for granted (Mt. 5:24, Lk.18:9-14) but those who engage in public worship should be as free of all pretense as one who prays in the secrecy of a closet.

6:16 - hotan de nesteueite - "And when you fast"(AILL) - Jesus took it for granted that his hearers practiced fasting as an act of piety, though he made an exception for his personal followers during his lifetime (9:14f. = Mk. 2:18-20; cf. also ll:18f. = Lk. 7:33f.). Pious Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays; to distinguish themselves from these "hypocrites," Christians were urged to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (Didache 8:1). --- me ginesthe hos oi hypokritai skuthropoi, aphanizousin gar ta prosopa auton -"do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,for they disfigure their faces"(AILL) - Lack of proper nourishment can result in one's appearing skuthropos, gloomy, sad, sullen, and it is to avoid this that the Arch-eunuch urged Daniel and his friends to abandon their vegetarian diet (Dan. 1:10 [Theod.]). The hypocrites in vs. 16 tried to imitate this appearance by disfiguring their faces with ashes or cosmetics.

6:17 - su de nesteuon aleipsai sou tein kefalein kai to prosopon sou nipsai - " But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face" (AILL) - Jesus commands his disciples to take the opposite course, and by anointing their heads and washing their faces to imitate the happy appearance of those who are celebrating a feast.

6:19,21 - These verses have parallels in Luke 12:33f. and hence may derive from Q. There seems to be an allusion to them in Jas. 5:2f. In logion 76 of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas the saying in vs. 20 is conflated with the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Mt. 13:45f.).

3. STRATEGY: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

"All the world's a stage,/ and all the men and women merely players"
--AS YOU LIKE IT , II,7. Shakespeare's famous line has been echoed by many writers, as any dictionary of quotations will prove. This is hardly surprising, since all human beings are obviously "actors" playing different "roles." But they are not merely actors: two 19th-Century English clerics, A.W. and J.C. Hare, point out that "Everybody has his own theater, in which he is manager, actor, prompter, playwright, sceneshifter, boxkeeper, doorkeeper, and audience" (Guesses at Truth, 1827). We like, so far as we are able, to manage our own lives, to be in control of the "action" in which we are the "actors." In the language of the New Testament we are hypocrites, "putting on an act" so that we will be thought well of by others and, as the Hare brothers say, by ourselves--for we are our own most important audience. Or are we? God is also watching, even when we are not consciously "on stage." Since Lent is a time for self-examination, we might profitably ask ourselves such questions as: Where is our "theater"? How are we "managing" it? What audience are we usually performing for? What audiences should we pay more attention to? What are the "box-office receipts"? What sort of applause do we seek? From other people? From ourselves? From God?

What is the value of this "applause" in each case?

4. REFERENCES: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Bultmann, Rudolf. The History of the Synoptic Tradition, transl. by John Marsh.2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell,1968.

M'Neile,A.H. The Gospel According to Matthew. London: MacMillan,1952.

Johnson, S.H. "The Gospel of Matthew," in the Interpreter's Bible, vol. 7. NY: Abingdon, 1951.

M.H. Shepherd. The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. NY: Oxford University Press, 1950.

G. Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, transl. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963. Articles on: dikaiosune, theaomai, eleemosune, nesteuo, proseuchomai, salpingo, and hypokrites


The 1982 Episcopalian Hymnal has two settings (EH 140,141) of John Donne's poem, "Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun"; the second of these,harmonized by J.S. Bach, may be easier for congregational singing. LORD JESUS, SUN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS (EH 144) and NOW QUIT YOUR CARE AND ANXIOUS FEAR AND WORRY (EH 145) both look forward from the penitential season to the goal of Easter. Also traditional are O LORD, THROUGHOUT THESE FORTY DAYS (LBW 99) and SAVIOR WHEN IN DUST TO YOU (LBW 91), and MY SONG IS LOVE UNKNOWN (EH 458, LBW 94).

Exegete: Eugene V.N. Goetchius, Ph.D., Th.D. was Professor Emeritus of the New Testament and Biblical Languages, and Lecturer in Greek at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His publications include: The Language of the New Testament. New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1965.


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