Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jl 2: 12-18 / Psa 51 / 2Cor 5:20—6:2

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)

Grant, O Lord, that we may not seek
Praises of worthless vain glory,
They bloat our pride and make us weak,
And our life an empty story.

(Jesus said), “Take care not to perform righteous deeds before other people in order to be seen by them, otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. 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. But 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 6:1-6,16-18)

Reflection

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. In its observance, the Church urges the faithful to fast, pray fervently, and give alms to the needy. Fasting is for self-mortification, prayer is for acknowledging God as our Maker and Savior, and almsgiving is for showing charity towards others. All three complete our lives as righteous Christians.

Note that Jesus mentions the word “secret” six times in today’s Gospel passage. And yet, didn’t He also say that our light “must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt.5:16)? This brings to mind the indelible mark of our Jesuit mentors in our lives: to be a man for others, but as their motto also reminds, Ad majorem dei gloriam — “all for the glory of God.” If we perform these acts of piety merely for self-glorification, then they have no merit in the eyes of God. It is primarily our love for God that motivates all our sacrifices, prayers and good deeds. As St. Paul said, “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1Cor.13:3).

Fasting, by the way, is not as pleasing to God as performing acts of mercy and justice for the poor and less privileged. In the book of Isaiah, we read, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa 58:6-7) Neither is fasting as essential during Lent as being reconciled with those whom we have turned away, especially our own flesh and blood. Lent is also the perfect time for reconciliation.

Our Lord teaches us in today’s Gospel reading to be humble in all our dealings, to be penitent by fasting, and giving alms to atone for our sins. He invites us to come to Him in prayer with a forgiving heart so that we may be reconciled with those who have hurt us. Jesus has shown us the vanity of seeking the praise of others. It is enough that our good deeds are pleasing in the eyes of God. The good that we do is already our reward because we believe that in the end we will hear the Father tell us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, come and enjoy the fruits of your labor in My kingdom.

Father God we offer our bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to You” during this season of Lent, not merely by acts of mortification and prayer, but by being more patient, forgiving, kind and charitable to others. Amen.

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