Ash Wednesday is February 26, 2020.

These are the readings for the first day in Lent:

Readings for Ash Wednesday

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us how to practice piety and self denial through fasting: keep it quiet and never boast about it. Verses 19 through 21 will also be familiar to many.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

6:1 “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.

6:2 “So 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.

6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:5 “And 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.

6:6 But 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.

6:16 “And 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.

6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,

6:18 so 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.

6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;

6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Our Lord addressed these verses to the scribes and the Pharisees, who made much public display of their notional devotion to God.

Yet, they were so hard-hearted that they rejected Jesus to the end, with all their hearts and all their minds.

Of these verses, Matthew Henry’s commentary counsels (emphases mine):

As we must do better than the scribes and Pharisees in avoiding heart-sins, heart-adultery, and heart-murder, so likewise in maintaining and keeping up heart-religion, doing what we do from an inward, vital principle, that we may be approved of God, not that we may be applauded of men; that is, we must watch against hypocrisy, which was the leaven of the Pharisees, as well as against their doctrine, Luke 12:1. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, are three great Christian duties–the three foundations of the law, say the Arabians: by them we do homage and service to God with our three principal interests; by prayer with our souls, by fasting with our bodies, by alms-giving with our estates. Thus we must not only depart from evil, but do good, and do it well, and so dwell for evermore …

Take heed of hypocrisy, for if it reign in you, it will ruin you. It is the dead fly that spoils the whole box of precious ointment.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving done openly, with ostentation and/or public announcement, has its own reward on Earth, in front of other sinful people. Those who do such things are not pleasing God. God will not honour such actions.

Henry explains, referring to the Greek in the original text:

they have their reward here, and have none to hope for hereafter. Apechousi ton misthon. It signifies a receipt in full. What rewards the godly have in this life are but in part of payment; there is more behind, much more; but hypocrites have their all in this world, so shall their doom be; themselves have decided it. The world is but for provision to the saints, it is their spending-money; but it is pay to hypocrites, it is their portion.

The reason for doing these things in very public places is to impress others. God, on the other hand, remains distinctly unimpressed with such open expressions. Henry gives us the reasons for the Jewish hierarchy’s seeking out the most public places for their most ostentatious prayer displays and why God disapproves. It is not entirely wrong to do these things in the open, but when we become prideful and seek out more of the same, it becomes sinful:

Their pride in choosing these public places, which is expressed in two things: [1.] They love to pray there. They did not love prayer for its own sake, but they loved it when it gave them an opportunity of making themselves noticed. Circumstances may be such, that our good deeds must needs be done openly, so as to fall under the observation of others, and be commended by them; but the sin and danger is when we love it, and are pleased with it, because it feeds the proud humour.

With regard to the scribes and Pharisees:

[2.] It is that they may be seen of men; not that God might accept them, but that men might admire and applaud them; and that they might easily get the estates of widows and orphans into their hands (who would not trust such devout, praying men?) and that, when they had them, they might devour them without being suspected (Matthew 23:14); and effectually carry on their public designs to enslave the people.

Henry says that the public forum is not the place for ostentatious devotion. Therefore, in church, we must be circumspect and not stand out. Furthermore, we make a mistake if the only time we pray is in church:

we must avoid every thing that tends to make our personal devotion remarkable, as they that caused their voice to be heard on high, Isaiah 58:4. Public places are not proper for private solemn prayer.

Furthermore:

Personal prayer is here supposed to be the duty and practice of all Christ’s disciples.

Henry has more on personal prayer:

Note, Secret prayer is to be performed in retirement, that we may be unobserved, and so may avoid ostentation; undisturbed, and so may avoid distraction; unheard, and so may use greater freedom; yet if the circumstances be such that we cannot possibly avoid being taken notice of, we must not therefore neglect the duty, lest the omission be a greater scandal than the observation of it …

Note, In secret prayer we must have an eye to God, as present in all places; he is there in thy closet when no one else is there; there especially nigh to thee in what thou callest upon him for. By secret prayer we give God the glory of his universal presence (Acts 17:24), and may take to ourselves the comfort of it.

Scripture cautions against repetition in prayer, yet, Henry explains that this is only when our minds wander as we repeat the same words over and over. Repetition, when done with reverence and thought, is acceptable:

It is not all repetition in prayer that is here condemned, but vain repetitions. Christ himself prayed, saying the same words (Matthew 26:44), out of more than ordinary fervour and zeal, Luke 22:44. So Daniel, Daniel 9:18,19. And there is a very elegant repetition of the same words, Psalms 136:1-26. It may be of use both to express our own affections, and to excite the affections of othersthe barren and dry going over of the same things again and again, merely to drill out the prayer to such a length, and to make a show of affection when really there is none; these are the vain repetitions here condemned. When we would fain say much, but cannot say much to the purpose; this is displeasing to God and all wise men.

As for fasting, it should be accompanied by prayer. Otherwise, it has no spiritual value. It’s just a diet.

Fasting does not mean gorging at night, either.

Henry, very much an Anglican clergyman whose theology aligned with Calvinism, lamented the loss of the centuries-old godly practice of fasting. This would have been in the late 17th and early 18th century. Fasting, accompanied by prayer, curbs the urges of the flesh for more food and focusses our minds on higher things:

We are here cautioned against hypocrisy in fasting, as before in almsgiving, and in prayer.

I. It is here supposed that religious fasting is a duty required of the disciples of Christ, when God, in his providence, calls to it, and when the case of their own souls upon any account requires it; when the bridegroom is taken away, then shall they fast, Matthew 9:15. Fasting is here put last, because it is not so much a duty for its own sake, as a means to dispose us for other duties. Prayer comes in between almsgiving and fasting, as being the life and soul of both. Christ here speaks especially of private fasts, such as particular persons prescribe to themselves, as free-will offerings, commonly used among the pious Jews; some fasted one day, some two, every week; others seldomer, as they saw cause. On those days they did not eat till sun-set, and then very sparingly. It was not the Pharisee’s fasting twice in the week, but his boasting of it, that Christ condemned, Luke 18:12. It is a laudable practice, and we have reason to lament it, that is so generally neglected among Christians. Anna was much in fasting, Luke 2:37. Cornelius fasted and prayed, Acts 10:30. The primitive Christians were much in it, see Acts 13:3,14:23. Private fasting is supposed, 1 Corinthians 7:5. It is an act of self-denial, and mortification of the flesh, a holy revenge upon ourselves, and humiliation under the hand of God. The most grown Christians must hereby own, they are so far from having any thing to be proud of, that they are unworthy of their daily bread. It is a means to curb the flesh and the desires of it, and to make us more lively in religious exercises, as fulness of bread is apt to make us drowsy. Paul was in fastings often, and so he kept under this body, and brought it into subjection.

Henry summarises the biblical way to fast:

We are directed how to manage a private fast; we must keep it in private, Matthew 6:17,18. He does not tell us how often we must fast; circumstances vary, and wisdom is profitable therein to direct; the Spirit in the word has left that to the Spirit in the heart; but take this for a rule, whenever you undertake this duty, study therein to approve yourselves to God, and not to recommend yourselves to the good opinion of men; humility must evermore attend upon our humiliation. Christ does not direct to abate any thing of the reality of the fast; he does not say,”take a little meat, or a little drink, or a little cordial;” no, “let the body suffer, but lay aside the show and appearance of it; appear with thy ordinary countenance, guise, and dress; and while thou deniest thyself thy bodily refreshments, do it so as that it may not be taken notice of, no, not by those that are nearest to thee; look pleasant, anoint thine head and wash thy face, as thou dost on ordinary days, on purpose to conceal thy devotion; and thou shalt be no loser in the praise of it at last; for though it be not of men, it shall be of God. Fasting is the humbling of the soul (Psalms 35:13), that is the inside of the duty; let that therefore be thy principal care, and as to the outside of it, covet not to let it be seen. If we be sincere in our solemn fasts, and humble, and trust God’s omniscience for our witness, and his goodness for our reward, we shall find, both that he did see in secret, and will reward openly. Religious fasts, if rightly kept, will shortly be recompensed with an everlasting feast. Our acceptance with God in our private fasts should make us dead, both to the applause of men (we must not do the duty in hopes of this), and to the censures of men too (we must not decline the duty for fear of them). David’s fasting was turned to his reproach, Psalms 69:10; and yet, Matthew 6:13, As for me, let them say what they will of me, my prayer is unto thee in an acceptable time.

Certainly, some people have problems gaining weight. Therefore, fasting would not be recommended for them.

However, for the rest of us, some physical self-denial, accompanied by prayer, would not go amiss.

It is hard to think of a better Gospel to lead us into Lent. For anyone observing this season, I pray that you be abundantly blessed in all your undertakings, especially those further enabling the Christian journey.