Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily on Ash Wednesday, March 1.
A hypocrite is a person who does the right thing for self-serving reasons. In today’s Gospel we see how this can occur in the case of almsgiving, prayer and fasting — the three great spiritual disciplines of Judaism and Christianity.
In Judaism these are called “mitzvot,” which is rendered as “righteous deeds” in today’s Gospel. And, of course, for us Catholics these are the three great spiritual disciplines of Lent.
Almsgiving — giving money to the needy and to charity — is definitely a righteous deed and the world needs a lot more of it, whether it involves giving to CASA or to Catholic Charities or to a beggar on the street. But while money given for the wrong reason can still do a lot of good, it’s not almsgiving, so the donor misses out on the spiritual benefits he might otherwise have derived from that same donation.
I’m grateful for philanthropists. They do a lot of good, but they miss out on so much by insisting that their name be put on the side of the building. As Jesus says, “They have already had their reward.” Their recompense was a moment of human praise and a big tax deduction, but they’ve made a pretty bad bargain because according to today’s Gospel, they will have no recompense from their heavenly Father. We can’t outdo God in generosity, so we should give sacrificially without drawing attention to ourselves.
The same goes for prayer and fasting. We can do these for the right reasons and derive tremendous spiritual benefit from these righteous deeds, or we can do them for show and miss out on what might have been.
So, regarding prayer: there is both public prayer — like this liturgy — and private prayer at home or in a chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. What Jesus is saying is that without private prayer, the public prayer becomes routine and eventually can become just for show, meeting your Sunday obligation but without any real conversion of heart to the Lord.
That necessary conversion is fostered best in private prayer, by which we seek gradually more and more to conform our will to that of the Lord. And then we go from that to public prayer as a community, in our case now better prepared by our private prayer to receive the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist. He is really present to us and it is our preparation in private prayer that best disposes us to be really present to him, especially in that most sacred moment when we receive him into ourselves in Communion.
The same is true for fasting, which is the opposite of dieting — even though for most of us, that would be a good thing too. Dieting involves making sacrifices for our own physical benefit — better health, better appearance. Fasting is making sacrifices for our own spiritual benefit and for the benefit of others, for whom we may be offering up our suffering. Fasting also helps us to identify with the poor who do without all the time.
Many blessings come our way if we fast for the right reasons. And pray in the right way. And give generously, for the right reasons.
Today we begin the season of Lent. May the Lord inspire in us righteous deeds done for the right reason. May we do none of this for the purpose of being seen and may those who do happen to see us do these things find encouragement to do good deeds themselves, such that everything serves to give glory to God and not to ourselves.
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