On the morning of Ash Wednesday several years ago, a devout Christian friend of mine went to see his spiritual adviser. This person happened to be an elderly neighbour. My friend had known her for years. He trusted her completely; she’d guided him through some difficult times in his life. He’d gone to see her that morning for advice on how best to mark Lent, the traditional Christian season of preparation.
When you get home after the Ash Wednesday service, she told him, I have a very specific task for you. Yes, yes, he replied eagerly. You cannot and must not falter in it, she went on, seriously. What could the discipline she was thinking of possibly be, he wondered? Perhaps she was going to ask him to fast. My friend has given up chocolate for Lent almost every year since he was sixteen, and most years he gives up alcohol. Depending on the year, he’s set himself various other disciplines as well, such as praying before sunrise, not watching any TV, not eating Fridays, or abstaining from tea or coffee. Just about everything. Yes, he said to his mentor, almost impatiently. What is it I should do for my spiritual edification?
I want you to go home, she told him.
Straight home, mind you. She shook her finger at him.
And go to your kitchen…
Then pour yourself a nice big glass of wine and RELAX!
What? My friend was in shock. Why would his mentor say that?
There are two parts to what Jesus relates in Matthew. The first is about how we’re supposed to do what we do. When you fast, says Jesus (notice: when, not if), don’t let anyone know it. Surprise even yourself if that’s possible. Just do it. Naturally. And when you give money or time to a good cause, do that also, yes. But be so careless about the whole thing that your right hand won’t let your left hand know what you’re doing. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. Instead, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus isn’t talking about piety. He isn’t talking about good works. And he ISN’T talking about Lenten disciplines. Jesus is talking about attachments. (By the way Jesus almost sounds Buddhist). For most of us, our problem is not giving up riches, which we don’t have tons of anyway. Sure we could use texts like this to poke fun at Donald Trump. But he’s not our problem. At least, not yet.
We’re not attached to great fortunes, most of us. But we have unhealthy, problematic attachments just the same. My friend was wrongly, dangerously, unspiritually attached to some otherwise very good disciplines. It seems odd, but it’s true. Even monks can argue over who stays on their knees praying the longest. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Even if that treasure is the respect of other pious people, or our place in the pecking order of those serious people who really give up something, or our feeling of happiness over being good, or the small glory of being seen to be smart or organized or useful or especially, in our world, BUSY.
Pour yourself a big glass of wine – and relax! It might not be for everyone. But in my friend’s case, the advice was dead on. Avoid any attachment, this neighbour was saying, except the only attachment necessary. For I have given up all things, says Paul, and I consider them all rubbish, except one: the surpassing glory of knowing my Lord Jesus, and being found in him.
There. Christians should be attached to THAT. Being found in Jesus, even if drinking wine during Lent, is a true Lenten discipline, indeed.