Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (Ash Wednesday) – February 22, 2023

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – Ash Wednesday


“Beware practicing your piety before others….”

(Warning… A nuanced interpretation is coming and it’s not the most revelatory interpretation in the world.)

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently lifting up this text as an awkward contradiction to the earlier portion of the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. “Be the light of the world). Is Jesus not immediately asking us to hide our light under a bushel here?

To be fair to my colleagues, I believe that each of them are intentionally setting up a straw man argument that says that Jesus is telling us to not practice ritual with absent hearts and minds, but that we should lean into the meaning of the rituals and practice our piety, our alms giving, our acts of service, with intentionality and with God in mind. It is a “walk the walk that you talk” kind of argument. And honestly, it’s a good way to go on Ash Wednesday as people uncomfortably walk around with ashes on their forehead all day and have no alternative but to identify as Christian.

But my fear of approaching the text this way, is that it ultimately leads to a form of quietism. On a day when we must show that we’re Christian (Christmas Eve, Easter, Ash Wednesday, Baptisms), how do you live like a Christian? On days when you don’t feel like living up to those standards, just don’t do things that will make you look like a Christian.

But here’s my nuanced take:


In Matthew, Jesus wants us to be loud Christians and to live up to the same standards as the religious officials (and maybe even higher). Whether we are ordained or lay folk, we are supposed to be loud about our faith and live righteously in our piety and in our actions.

To this point in the Gospel, nothing has been done in secret. This is not the Gospel of Mark with the messianic secret. Jesus has been publicly in the open from the beginning of his ministry. The baptism called him the Beloved. He immediately began preaching and healing in Galilee. He calls the disciples to be salt, light, and the city on a hill. Don’t hide your light!

There is nothing to suggest that Jesus wants the disciples to hide anything about their faith. In fact, he wants them to be loud about it.

Prophets are not quiet folk and that is what Jesus is setting up his followers to be: Prophets of God who will continue the prophetic traditions and prophetic message. In chapter 10, Jesus will give the twelve authority and send them out into Israel publicly to do ministry (10:1-42). While the twelve are away, in chapter 11, Jesus goes out and publicly proclaims his message (11:1). Jesus’ ministry with the twelve is so public that John the Baptist hears and inquires about it in chapter 11 (11:2-6). And of course, the Great Commission at the end is a public sending into the world.

There is nothing quiet about Jesus or the disciples in this Gospel. That being said, there is scrutiny alongside public ministry. What Jesus does not have tolerance for is public leaders who don’t live righteously (living in accordance with the law and the prophetic tradition). Here in this section, Jesus is heavy handed with the criticism of the religious leaders and he will continue to criticize them for hypocrisy and (prepare yourself Lutherans) faith without works. Now that is not the only criticism in this Gospel. Jesus scolds Peter (“Get behind me, Satan”) when Peter can’t accept the idea of Jesus needing to be crucified (16:21-23). Jesus scolds each of the twelve when they question the woman who anoints Jesus before his crucifixion, calling it “waste” (26:6-13). *The best line of this text is the last verse, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (13).” This of course leads to Judas going in secret to the chief priests to betray Jesus (26:14-16). Then Jesus publicly reminds Judas and Peter that they will betray and deny him respectively (26:20-25, 32-35).

Preaching Possibility

I’m not sure now is the time to be quiet about our faith. We’ve been doing it for long enough. We know who the “Christians” are in our society and—to be a little heavier handed that I usually like to be—they are practicing their piety before others and are being blatant hypocrites.

We who have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, that calls us to speak out against injustice, that calls us to serve others, that calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned (25:31-45), we are called to live a life of faith loudly and publicly for all the world. We are called to be a light in this world. We are called to serve our neighbor and to do so with purpose, intentionality, and with God in our mind. Ash Wednesday should not be the only day of the year where we are publicly Christian. Every day we should attempt to live out our discipleship for others to see, because we have been called by our God who has sent us into all the world.

AND… when we fall, when we mess up, when we say the wrong things, we are called to repent. There are times when we will get high on ourselves and need to be reminded that it’s about Jesus. There are times when we will get frustrated with our neighbors and need to be reminded that they are just people too. There are times when we will forget what it means to be Christian, and that is when our siblings in Christ will graciously call us into account and call us back so that we can begin all over again.

We need public faith right now. Even at the risk of failing. Even at the risk of messing up. We need public faith right now from the Christian faith that is called to serve as Jesus served us.

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