Grace and peace to you from our Savior, Jesus Christ. We celebrate lent as a time of self-reflection and repentance. And it is a celebration. It’s a special time when we can give ourselves permission to pay more attention to our faith. It’s a time for piety – that is the practice of faith.
Jesus reminds us not to practice our piety before others, to be recognized by others, because piety is about our relationship to God.
And our relationship with God is not something to be exploited for personal gain. We don’t call out to God as a way to build credibility. We don’t call ourselves Christian to align ourselves to the dominate culture.
When Jesus tells us to give alms in secret he is telling us about more than modesty and discretion. He’s remind us not to take advantage of people. Don’t give just to create an obligation in others. Don’t give to call attention to the fact that you have more than others.
This is exactly what people were doing then and are doing now. We want charity to level the playing field. If someone is not able to work because they are sick or injured, we want to help them get well, we want to provide what they can’t provide for themselves. When children are born to poor families, we want to see them fed and educated. No one should go hungry – especially in this time and in this country.
But all these good intentions can so easily be perverted to reinforce the very same human institutions that cause the great disparities of wealth in the first place. The rich and the poor both recognize who is giving and who choses where it goes. Rather than focusing on the fact that we can’t have extreme wealth without extreme poverty, we tend to focus on not falling into poverty. Our fear of the plight turns to anger at the afflicted because we don’t want admit how random our place in the hierarchy is and how very vulnerable we are to slipping downward.
There is another dimension to this as well. When we are more focused on other people and human hierarchies, then other people have a hand in defining our place in the hierarchy and naming our short-comings. And they will name our short-comings because they need to reinforce their own place in the hierarchy. Another way of saying this, is that if we are good stewards of our relationship with God, other people will exploit it for their own gain.