Ash Wednesday | The Season of Lent | February 22nd

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

The texts for our meditation today juxtapose outward appearance and the inner substance of faith.  When the renowned biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, was on the Belmont campus last fall, he proclaimed the prophetic literature of ancient Israel to be “literature for losers.”  These writings arose out of Israel’s defeat and destruction and its struggles to make sense of that experience.  In Isaiah 58:3 the prophetic poet utters the people’s questions:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

These are people who are striking a righteous pose, but they are not receiving the expected reward.  The response to these questions seems so obvious that we might think they can go unsaid, but apparently we need to hear them again:

Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day,

And oppress all your workers.

When Jesus came along half a millennium later, he saw the same problem among his own followers, and he addressed this same conflict between outward piety and inner substance in Matthew 6: 1-6:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…

So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you….

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…

We live in an age in which politicians, celebrities, and athletes pose and posture to demonstrate their religious faith.  Making a public spectacle of one’s religious practice is considered a virtue by many.  This is a very difficult temptation to avoid.  Virtually everything we do in our lives has a goal of achievement attached to it.  Even Christian institutions function on systems of performance, merit, and reward.  These values are woven so seamlessly into our world that the construction and maintenance of a counter-narrative is a constant struggle.  The Lenten season is our annual reminder that faithfulness is a losing proposition that does not draw attention to itself.  The temptation to dwell permanently in the glory and victory of Easter must be torn away from us every year, lest we begin to think we have earned it.

Mark McEntire
Professor, School of Religion

You can download the full Lent and Holy Week Devotional Guide at: http://www.belmont.edu/religion/files/lent-devotional-2012-final.pdf.

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