Whatever you do this Lent, don’t be a hypocrite
A Reflection for Ash Wednesday
You can find today’s readings here.
“Do not be like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:5)
If you ask any Catholic what we’re supposed to do during Lent, they’ll list three action items: give alms, pray and fast. These are our traditional tools for reconciling ourselves with God and each other in preparation for Easter. And they are often the focus of our forty-day journey.
Jesus certainly called his disciples to give alms, pray and fast. But his primary instruction went deeper than a list of action items, to the spirit and disposition of the person acting. Don’t be a hypocrite, he said. Don’t practice your faith for appearances. Appearances can be deceiving. Don’t let your piety and charity lead you to feel superior to others. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that by giving alms, praying and fasting your work is done. In the end, it’s not so much about what you do as how you do it. Don’t be a hypocrite.
Of all the wonderful things that could be said about giving alms, praying and fasting, the Evangelists record Jesus’ obsession with the risk of hypocrisy in the people who do them. It’s one of the most penetrating of Jesus’ insights into the human soul. Good people doing good things are at great spiritual risk.
Anyone of any faith, community or tradition can be a hypocrite. We know this is true because all of us can spot hypocrisy in others, though none of us like to, or are able to, spot it in ourselves. In an awkward, universalistic sense, we humans are all connected in that way.
I won’t sit here and tell you not to give alms, pray or fast during Lent. But the real work of reconciling our broken lives, relationships and ultimately the entire world starts with each of us pausing today to honestly assess our deepest motivations and desires. If we look honestly and deeply enough, we’ll spot the hypocrisy we so easily spot in others. And then, with the help of Jesus, our Lenten spiritual director, our forty-day journey of reconciliation will have begun.