Our Gospel today is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. The purpose of this teaching on almsgiving, prayer and fasting is to bring together in a vital connection those spiritual practices and the conversion of the heart.
1st Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Joel is one of the later prophets in history, active after the return of the Babylonian exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple. The purpose of his prophecy is to discern God’s will in a huge storm of locusts which has ravaged crops. He takes it as a call to the people to lament, a ritual expression of grief. In chapter two the shofar sounds the alarm. The Day of the Lord is coming like that plague of locusts. The people’s grief must turn to repentance, and Joel lists some common practices of repentance in his day, yet he is also clear that those practices must be outward signs of an inward commitment. The final sentence is an appeal to God’s sense of honor and duty.
2:1Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—2a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. 12Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
1st Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
The prophet is told to reveal to the people the incongruity between their lifestyle and the values they express in their worship. The scene is a liturgical one, announced with the shofar. After pointing out this incongruity, the Lord reveals what genuine fasting (and other spiritual practices) should result in: the practice of justice and a turning away from oppression. As we begin Lent, it is not only a good idea to deny one’s self something as an act of devotion, but to take on a practice of kingdom-building as well.
58:1Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Psalm 103 is a great expression trust of the compassion and mercy of God among the psalms. God’s mercy covers not only the forgiveness of sins, but also the healing of infirmities. The psalm also recognizes the constant need of humanity, using an image from Genesis (2:7) that we are but dust. God knows this better than we do ourselves, but his response is not condemnation, it is “steadfast love.”
8 The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9 He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13 As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14 For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
In its context this passage is a summary of Paul’s defense of himself as an apostle. This defense has been going on since the beginning of the letter. Someone has challenged his authority and, more importantly, the content of his teaching. He claims for himself, and all those who would follow Jesus, the ministry of reconciliation. We are called to this ministry in all the suffering and the joy of our lives. The catechism of The Book of Common Prayer, teaches that this ministry of reconciliation is the primary ministry of the church: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (p. 855).
20bSo we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1bAs we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 22For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Our Gospel today is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. The purpose of this teaching on almsgiving, prayer and fasting is to bring together in a vital connection those spiritual practices and the conversion of the heart. Our motivation (a result of that conversion) is very important to Jesus. We do these things not to be seen and to be thought well of. This sharply contrasts in his own day, the Roman custom of philanthropy as a public display. The passage ends with the question for our hearts: Where is your treasure?
1Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever 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. 16And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Collect of the Day and the Psalm translation are from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are copyright © 2016, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, www.epiphanyesources.com. All rights reserved. Permission is given to copy for congregational use, with attribution.