2 March – On “giving up” for Lent

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Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-20

In a sentence:
Lent is a time to give up anything which reduces us or others

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

We hear this every Ash Wednesday and, with the text ringing in our ears, we have learned that Lent is a time of “giving up”. We “give up” wine, or meat or coffee or chocolate or some other thing which might count as a “treasure”. This is, in part, an act of sacrifice which honours Jesus’ own “giving up” of his life in faithfulness to his calling.

Of course, the implication o “giving up” for a season is that we will then, with a sigh of relief, “take up” whatever we have sacrificed once Easter arrives. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, especially if the disciple of such time-limited sacrifice causes us to think about the ministry of Jesus and the meaning of the cross.

But let’s consider that not all treasures are alike. In particular, not all treasures glitter but they still seem important to us. At least, we invest a lot of time and energy in them.

So, for example, what would it mean to give up gossip for Lent? Or slander? Or snobbishness? What we treasure in these things is judgement. Let us give up being judgemental for the 40 days of Lent; there’s plenty of time to judge others over the rest of the year.

Of course, the real sting in judgement is that, if we are really good at it, we will also judge ourselves, for better or for worse. The “worse” is the more interesting here. What if we gave up our shame? Or our guilt? Or our fear? Again, the venerated tradition of giving things up for Lent means that we can start feeling ashamed and guilty and afraid again once Easter comes. Lent is only 40 days, and surely we can cope with not judging ourselves for that long.

Where your treasure is, there is your heart. Where your heart is, there is your treasure. This tells us what we value, but not what is valuable in itself. What is valuable, Jesus says, is what cannot rust or be snatched away. Whatever good Lenten disciplines might indeed do for us, penitence is not a season because forgiveness is not a season. Forgiveness doesn’t corrode and can’t be stolen away because it is a re-valuing of all value – God’s own re-valuing

To judge another is to place a value on her, and so we feel justified in denying her our treasures. To judge ourselves is to have treasured the wrong thing. We reduce ourselves to our knowledge of who we are rather than God’s knowledge of us.

Lenten disciplines are targeted at those things which make us less than free and loving human beings. We give up only what does not accord with that, and we do not take those things up again. This might or might not include wine or chocolate; it almost certainly includes slander and guilt.

Let us then, at least for the season of Lent, stop being sad and fearful at our own expense, greedy and safe at the expense of others.

And let us see what God will do with that.