Download or listen to Ash Wednesday: “Calculation” (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have always calculated. When I was a child, I calculated how much candy I had eaten at Halloween, and how much I had left. I calculated how to make best use of money I got for birthdays and holidays. I calculated how much I could give away so that it wouldn’t affect me too much. I calculate how to do things in the least difficult or inconvenient way. I calculate the things I’ve done and the things I deserve. I calculate how I look, and what people will think of me. I calculate my sin—laying it out before me low to high, bad to worse—and then I think I’m in a position to calculate God’s mercy. Calculation is close kin to measurement, which is cousin to counting and dividing, and they are all the illegitimate children of the Law.
But Jesus puts an end to all calculation, all measurement, all keeping track. It’s all or nothing; reward in this world or reward in the next. Everything in God through Christ, or everything in this world through other people. Either you keep track for the sake of what people see when they look at you and what you do; or you do everything in Christ, knowing that God is your loving Father in heaven. Either you are a hypocrite who does not trust God to give the entire Kingdom to His beloved children, and so you settle for the best you can get in this world; or you are a beggar who cannot be trusted to see your own sin clearly and so you entrust yourself to the merciful rewarding of a gracious God. Either you do works of mercy so that people will see how generous, good, and nice you are; or you do them because you are how the Father serves His creatures. Either you pray because you want people to see how religious and pious you are, or you pray because you know that you have a Father in heaven who hears and will never forsake you—not even when you can see no good thing around you. Either you fast to show everyone how much you can give up for God, or you fast to discipline your sinful flesh, which wants everything it can get, everything it can eat, everything it can buy, everything it can consume. There is no in-between. There is no reward but the measured-out, calculated reward according to works; or the freely given, more than enough, unlimited reward that a Father gives to His children, just because they’re His.
I calculate. I measure out. I count up. I keep track. I’m afraid that if I don’t find a way to let people know what and how much I’ve done, then no one will know. But Jesus says that if people know, that’s all the reward I’m due. And what good is that? People are as fickle—or as unmoving—as the Law. As long as you can keep up appearances, and convince people that righteous is as righteous does, everything will be fine. But slip up once in a major way, or slip up in a thousand small ways, and you will face the calculated judgment of the Law and all its careful defenders. Not your heavenly Father. Not for you, who have died with Christ, burying your sinful nature in ashes, dust, and water. Not for you; for you Jesus has done the only work of mercy worthy of the name. For you Jesus has prayed to His heavenly Father. For you Jesus fasted in the wilderness and brought the devil to his knees. For you Jesus rose so that your body of dust, once it has returned whence it came, will leave behind the ground forever. For you Jesus was consumed in the fire of God’s wrath, so that the ashes of repentance will be remade into the palms of rejoicing.
Lent is not a time for calculation. God has calculated the depth of your sin and mine, and only His Son knows the hell it merits. So do not calculate what you and your works, so much dust and ashes, are worth. God gives everything for you; your neighbor needs everything from you; and your reward will cover everything you have done and left undone. Do not point with your left hand to what your right hand has done; whatever your hand finds to do in service to someone else, do it. Do not direct your prayers to the people around you; pray with the simple words of a child to his loving father. Do not tell everyone what you’re giving up for Lent; just do what you need to do for the sake of self-discipline. Self-control is for the sake of your flesh to better carry out your vocation; mercy is for the sake of your neighbor; and reward is yours for the sake of Christ. And the goodness of God in Christ can never be calculated or divided out, it can only be received in full, indivisible, with the uncalculated joy of children.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/21/12