Thursday, February 26, 2009

Acting Out

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Ash Wednesday Meditation: February 25, 2009

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

As most of you probably know, the Academy Awards were handed out last Sunday night. We watched little snatches of it, but mainly just saw the awards for best actor, actress and best film.

All in all, I think the week that the Oscars are awarded is a pretty good week for the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of the thrust of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 6. Matthew gives us Jesus’ words in our reading from the gospel. Remember, Jesus said, “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others…”

While we may think of the Greek word hupo-krisis or hypocrite as a universally negative word for someone who is shamefully false and two-faced, in it’s original Greek it is a neutral word literally meaning “stage actor.” It is used in Jesus’ teaching as a metaphor for those who perform their religious duties with an eye on the human audience rather than the divine one.

One commentator on this feature of Jesus’ words in Matthew said that Jesus takes theater for granted:
“He does not tell his disciples to keep commandments; he assumes they will. He also assumes that they will want to go beyond the commandments. Like any observant Jew, they will want to serve their neighbor by giving alms, worship God by praying and live a disciplined life by fasting. Jesus does not say ‘if you fast’ but ‘when you fast.’

But there is a danger backstage in this theater. For when they leave the land of avoiding misdeeds, the land of ‘you shall not,’ the land of commandments, to enter the land of holy living, the land of ‘you shall,’ the disciples are in a different kind of theater. It can easily become a theater of performance and show … the theater of religion becomes a gaudy charade.”1
The true disciple of Jesus is fine with the theater of faith, but it is a theater which Jesus has transformed from one of show and display into a theater of humility and service, where the entire audience is made up, not of fellow worshipers, but God alone. The place where this theater comes to life is not in great gatherings of humanity, but in the prayer closet, the exchange between the worshiper and one who is needy, better yet, in the gift which remains anonymous, the good deed which in itself is satisfying apart from any recognition for it.
“We choose our audience. If we choose the crowd, we have our reward already. If we choose God, we receive another thing a child loves: we get to share a secret. The secret of holiness that is between God and the disciple is not the stuff of newspaper revelations or talk-show speculation. It is a bond that time and death will never break.”2
So, to belabor the Greek connection with the word hypocrite as a word for an actor just a little bit longer, since we are all destined to be actors of some sort in the drama of salvation, the choice in front of us as we enter a season of contemplation such as Lent, is not about avoiding acting – being a hypocrite in the Greek sense – but about thinkng on the sort of actor we want to be. As selfless and unselfish actors, we do God’s business not by pointing to ourselves in this world, but by re-directing our own attention toward the next.
“The disciple who can fast, who can depend on God for sustenance for a whole day or two, will not be easy prey to purveyors of instant gratification, or to advertising.”3
That is at least one reason why we gather here tonight. To sustain one another in each of our roles in the play of life, to encourage one another, not try to impress one another, and to pray that, as a people of God, we might do some thing that is pleasing to God, and about which perhaps no one but God will ever know. For, as Jesus teaches, for God to know it, it is enough.

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “Holiness: Simplicity,” by Samuel Wells, The Christian Century, 2-23-2000, p. 205.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.