I was running some errands a few weeks ago when I found myself stuck in a traffic jam. The cause of the stalled traffic was a man from out-of-State, and very lost, who had decided to make a U-turn. Unfortunately for him, and everyone else on the road, he was driving a mammoth motor home.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out not to be so. The lost driver attempted his U-turn across four lanes of oncoming traffic, and got stuck. His apartment complex on wheels got hung up between the median and the sidewalk. It looked like a cargo ship that had run aground on a sandbar.
I didn’t wait around to see the remainder of the drama. Rather, I ducked into a parking lot, and circumnavigated the rolling Costa Concordia. That driver could have saved himself a great deal of trouble that day if he had known where he wanted to go, and how to get there. At the time, it probably seemed perfectly sensible to set out on a journey with insufficient knowledge of the appropriate route to take, but that strategy rarely works out well. Jesus’ several warnings in today’s Gospel reading make this same point.
Jesus warned his disciples against performing pious actions for the purpose of making a good impression. (Matthew 6:1) Alsmgiving, prayer and fasting were activities done throughout the week by pious Jews during Jesus’ lifetime. They were commonplace activities. Everyone performed those actions, and everyone knew that everyone else did the same.
Jesus warned his disciples about their motivations behind performing common religious acts. He said that to do those pious actions for the sake of receiving a reward, or the recognition of others, would lead one in the wrong direction. I’m sure to some of those listening it seemed like a good idea to make a very public show of their piety. That was certainly the case for the Jerusalem Pharisees. Jesus knew, however, that to put the focus of one’s religious actions on oneself would only lead in the wrong direction (away from God).
The human mind is capable of balancing multiple demands at the same time. All of us here in church today have a lot on our minds: what we have to do after Mass, what we have to accomplish with the remainder of our day, what we’d like to do when return home at the end of the day. While we can juggle all of those various concerns, we can focus our full attention on just one of them at a time. If I give my full attention right now to the tasks I have scheduled for the afternoon, I’m going to forget how to end this homily. This is also the case with our attention to religious actions. If we focus our religious actions on ourselves, we are necessarily choosing not to focus on God. For this reason Jesus said, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 6:1)
I have had a concern about Lent for a very long time. I have worried that Lent was becoming a season of self-indulgence. I know this sounds like a contradiction. During Lent we choose a personal penance, and we join all Catholics in doing the prayer, almsgiving and fasting of Lent. It seems to me, however, that the focus of these things has ceased to be God. For quite some time I have wondered if Lent has been turned into nothing more than a Catholic version of Weight Watchers or a free alternative to the nicotine patch. To choose a penance for the purpose of self-improvement says it all: when Lent is focused on self, it is not focused on God.
Yesterday morning my suspicions were confirmed in full. The website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was soliciting “selfie” photographs of people wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes the Bishops get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I think they missed the boat on this one. Turning the Church’s communal act of penance into yet another opportunity to post a photo of oneself on the internet is undoubtedly going in the wrong direction with the Lenten observance. I’m sure there will be a lot going on in those selfie photos, but God probably won’t be visible in any of it.
At the time, it probably seemed like a good idea to make repentance into another self-promotion for our pervasive cultural narcissism, but to do so is to turn away from God. If we haven’t completely killed Lent, we’ve at least sent it to the Intensive Care Unit for an extended stay. I don’t know if Jesus’ Facebook page would unfriend someone for selfie-ing communal penitence, but at the very least, Ash Wednesday selfies appear to be completely at odds with Jesus’ warning, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 6:1)
I’d like to offer an alternative to you for your observance of Lent. Rather than turning Lent into one more self-help program, how about letting your Lent have a positive impact on someone else’s life?
Last year, on Holy Thursday, the money collected in the Offertory at Mass was donated to St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, our Missionary Cooperative Plan partner. St. Joseph Parish is a small inner-city parish in St. Petersburg’s South Side. They depend on funding from their several Missionary Cooperative Plan partners in order to pay their meager expenses. I’d like to suggest to you to make a contribution on Holy Thursday for St. Joseph Parish.
If you would like to do so, you might keep track until then of the monetary value of whatever it is you have chosen to give up for Lent. You might have to assign an arbitrary value to an intangible penance such as giving up being impatient. However you choose to do so, I encourage you to donate the monetary equivalent of what you sacrificed for Lent.
This sort of a Lenten penance is a real sacrifice rather than more self-indulgence or conveniently imposed self-help. Your support of our Missionary Cooperative Plan partner will be known to God, but no one else. It’s the sort of thing about which Jesus would say, “your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Matthew 6:18)