2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
In this passage Matthew has Jesus emphasizing the religious practices of Alms, Praying and Fasting. Jesus teaches motivation is what counts, not doing these practices for merit. Christian life is lived for God, not for others.
To give alms or mercy is an act of God. The word "mercy" comes from the word "womb.’ The disciples are to extend mercy, and thus be as close to like God as possible. It is a preeminent act of religion. We are to offer alms modestly. It preserves the dignity of the person who receives alms, and insures the authenticity of the Christian.
Fasting is to be done as not to draw attention to one’s self. The practice of not oiling one’s hair, leaving it uncombed, or not washing one’s face were practices that the whole person was engaged in the act of fasting. Jesus says by all means fast, but don’t attract attention to yourself. He says the "hypocrites" do this. The word for hypocrites is "actor" one who receives a "reward" for what they do. The word for "reward" is a commercial term meaning "receipt." In other words they have been "paid in full." The Christian’s reward will be given by God. Therefore, "rend your hearts and not your garments."
These instructions on Christian piety are appropriate as we enter into Lent. The Law of Moses required people to fast on the Day of Atonement. Pharisaic practice increased the practice to Mondays and Thursdays. In the early Christianity fasting was observed 24 hours then 36 hours before Easter. Eventually this extended to every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and then to the six weeks of Lent. Lent became such an important preparation for Easter that law courts were closed, hunting was forbidden, and even wars were suspended during this holy season. With this tradition in mind let us embrace this season and all the blessings it brings to us, so that we can rejoice whole heartedly at Easter.
Fr. Kenneth O’Malley, C.P. is the archivist at Catholic Theological Union and lives with the Passionist community in Chicago, Illinois.