Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 2.22.23n”Secret”  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


There’s a big difference between “secret” (Greek κρuπτω—where we get the word “cryptic” from) as Jesus uses it in our Gospel, and “private” as I think most people translate the word in their head when these famous verses are read. And understanding this difference has a massive effect on how you hear all Jesus’ words in this famous part of the famous Sermon on the Mount.

Two other Greek words that I think we mistranslate are crucial here as well. Because Jesus doesn’t say “be wary of doing your righteousness before other people” as the ESV has it, but he says: ανθρωπων a plural that is literally “men” but, in context’s, probably more correctly translated “humanity” as in the masses of the world.

And the other word is the one translated “room” from verse 6: “but when you pray go into your room”; but the Greek there is ταμειον which is not just any room, like our bedroom, but literally in Greek it’s a special room, the “treasury” a room where your treasures are stored and which will make more sense of the last verse “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

Throughout these verses in our Gospel reading, Jesus contrasts praying in secret with praying in order to be seen by humanity. He says the cryptic, or secret prayer is directed only to the Father who is also pretty cryptic, and dwells in the secret, holy places of the world that are not accessible by the hoi poloi, the masses of “humanity”, but are known and accessed only by the secret saints of God.

To cut to the chase: I’ve always heard these verses parsed as “Jesus says when you do righteousness, don’t do it publicly where anyone can see you, but go hide in a closet and do it privately just between you and God.”

But, uh, no. That’s not at all how the original Greek speaking devout Jewish audience would have taken these words. They would have not seen a contrast (as we do) between “public” and “private” and all that modern Americans have done with those two words, freighting them with all kind of political pitfalls. Not at all!

They would have heard a contrast between revealing ourselves to the mass of humanity, the world, or revealing our true selves only to God in his secret places where he has promised to be found by the faithful.

For them, the ταμειον—the treasury—the room for storing valuables, would not be a private chamber in one’s own house. No. It would be the worship place, the synagogue, the church. Interestingly enough, we have only recently discovered that the early Christians up till the time of Constantine worshipped not in their own living rooms in family groups of 4-14, but they worshipped in the storehouses, the first floor warehouse spaces of members of the church in groups from 50-120 or so.

Because the real treasury for the ancient Jews and the early Xns was the temple and later the synagogue. Their treasure is the word and sacraments of our God promising forgiveness, life, and salvation for those enslaved to sin by a Redeemer who will be revealed as Christ Jesus the LORD.

This solves one of the conundrums of Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes which seems to be more a medieval than an early church practice, but the early church may also have practiced it?

Actually, there is no place in the OT where God commands people to sit in ashes, fast, or wear sackcloth. Our reading from Joel this evening is as close as you get. But the fasting, weeping, and torn garments are not a self-chosen piety but, in context, are the result of the terrors of the last days when the enemies of God’s people ransack the holy city, burn it to the ground, kill, and terrorize the few faithful who are left without food, water—weeping, bruised, and in tatters from the last battle.

This does give a good context for Jesus’ words “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 [the adulation of the masses]. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by humanity, but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Living in the last days, we may run short on food, water, clean clothes. But the only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse that will be difficult for us is pretending we’re not excited because it means the LORD is near and heaven’s day is breaking.

This isn’t a self-imposed practice of denying ourselves food, water, clean clothing. When we’re in rough shape because the demons are at the door, clean up as best you can, put on a happy face and smile; because the Last Day is going to be hell for “humanity” and heaven for the elect, literally something we’ll thoroughly enjoy.

I don’t do the ash thing, you notice, mainly because the soot gets in my eyes when I’m trying to lead the service and preach from my manuscript. But it’s nice for you to do it.

The key thing that I think people miss is that whatever we do in church is not done “before humanity”. No, this is the secret, holy place of God(!) and whatever we do here is always just between God and his holy saints. So, remembering we are dust and to dust we shall return with some ash on the forehead is a “get-to” not a “have-to”—a useful and old devotional practice.

But there’s a larger issue here that maybe is hidden from a modern, missional church that always “hankers after bigness” as Hermann Sasse put it. Before Constantine (a neophyte Xn at best, and a hypocrite, perhaps, at worst) came and made the church big and showy and thought the bigger the church, the more people attending, the better for him and his empire. But before that, Xns worshiped in secret places, in their little warehouses on back streets, behind closed doors.

Actually, it was the Pharisees and their ilk that made the temple a huge tourist attraction and their synagogues big and shiny. Which doesn’t impress Jesus (Matt. 23).

Jesus says: “don’t cast your pearls before swine, nor give what is holy to the dogs”. And the early Xns took that seriously. As Elijah learned that the number of actual believers is around .7% they expected the church would need to be in secret, in back alleys, hidden, holy, hideaways.

But Constantine introduced the idea of putting it all on display for the masses. And Rome, in the middle ages, cottoned on to this with renewed zeal.

The early Xns use the word “prayers” as a synonym for the church’s corporate worship, not for private devotions. So, when we gather (as we do here) we’re in secret; and what we do is not done to put on a show for the masses of humanity, but to commune with God and our brothers and sisters, the holy saints of Christ.

Because you’ve come again to the treasure house of God. Wherever Jesus puts down his body and blood, that’s heaven on earth. Where your treasure is, your heart will be also. And when your treasure is Jesus, you’ve become truly, eternally, rich! You’ve seen the light. You’ve joined the most exclusive club in the world, the Remnant of Israel, the holy ones rescued from hell by Jesus.

And with smudged or clean faces, Jesus does his righteousness, his sanctifying thing on us with his Gospel Word, his body and blood, so that finding the treasure of treasures, the holy grail here, now, in this secret place, you may enjoy it forever with all the saints in heaven at the Lamb’s Feast which has no end. Amen.


About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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