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Ash Wednesday, Cycle B

As we ponder the meaning of the season of Lent and the significance we would like for it to have this year for us and for the people with whom we live, we begin with these Ash Wednesday texts.

We see that in Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the emphasis is on appropriate behavior. In Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 the Lord God commands the people to fast, weep, mourn, repent, and return to the Lord. In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the guidelines are to help those who are in need, pray, fast, and to store up your treasures in heaven where they will never be lost. It is obvious that for those who selected these texts for use on Ash Wednesday the behavior commanded in these texts from Joel and from Matthew were very important, especially for the season of Lent. They then selected a portion of one of the best-known penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 51) to indicate appropriate prayer to accompany appropriate behavior. Finally, the grace of God was brought into this series of texts with the inclusion of the Apostle Paul’s passive imperative verb katallagete (“be reconciled” to God) in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and in Paul’s entreaty in 2 Corinthians 6:1 not to receive the grace of God in vain. The 2 Corinthians reading provides for us, therefore, a very important addition to the appropriate behavior emphasis of the Joel and Matthew texts. The inclusion of the 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 reading suggests that we emphasize the grace of God along with appropriate behavior during Lent each year and perhaps once each three years make it the primary focus.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement forty years ago, many of us found in Isaiah 58 a message that resonated very well with us. It was that unless we are actively involved in social justice, in addressing the conditions in which people suffer economic and political oppression, as well as in being engaged in immediate and continued direct assistance to the oppressed, our fasting is no way acceptable to the Lord God. As a result, Isaiah 58:1-12 is now an alternative reading to Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 on Ash Wednesday. This inclusion of Isaiah 58:1-12 brings a very important dimension to our observance of Lent.

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

Let us look more closely, first of all, at Paul’s passive imperative verb katallagete in 2 Corinthians 5:20. From a theological perspective, the passive imperative is one of the most significant grammatical constructions in Indo-European language. Paul exhorts the followers of Jesus in Corinth and, because his exhortation here is sacred Scripture for us, also exhorts us to be reconciled to God by the grace of God. We believe that God makes this reconciliation possible by means of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, through the great atonement proclaimed by Paul and elaborated upon by other Christian theologians later.

What, then, is our role in this reconciling action? According to the grammatical construction, we are passive. God in Christ is the active one. We are to be passive, to have this done to us. “Be reconciled to God!” we are told. We can, of course, choose to reject this reconciliation, but Paul urges his readers and hearers to permit it to be done, to be forgiven, to become a new creation in Christ, as described in the 2 Corinthians 5:20a portion that precedes this text. All are strongly urged to accept this grace of God from God and to live in this grace. In 2 Corinthians 6:3-13 and continuing in 7:2-4 Paul claims that he and his co-proclaimers are trying to put no obstacles in anyone’s path. He wants no obstacles of any kind to keep this message of passive reception of grace from anyone who might want to hear it.

Our work, therefore, on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season, in accordance with this 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 text, is to prevent any and all obstacles from hindering God’s action of reconciling us and others to God through Jesus as the Christ.

Let us look now at the other texts appointed for us for this day in the light of Paul’s admonition to us that we should “Be reconciled to God by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let us, as Martin Luther insisted, interpret Scripture by the use of Scripture. In this way, we shall be letting the “gospel” — which in the texts chosen for this day is in the “epistle” — shed light on the other texts selected.

Psalm 51:1-17

The portion of Psalm 51 selected here puts emphasis on the penitential prayer. The obstacles to be removed in this instance are the psalmist’s sins (and our sins). These sins are great, but the appeal is that God’s mercy is greater than our sins. From our Christian standpoint, the forgiveness of our sins is accomplished by God through Jesus’ death, and resurrection. We recognize, however, that the Israelites and Jewish people prior to, during, and after the pre-Christian era called upon the mercy of God with no reference to Jesus, and we can and should assume that God has been able to forgive them. To assume anything less would be to try to limit God.

In the portion of Psalm 51 that follows verses 1-13, the psalmist shows an awareness that God does not need burnt offerings and other sacrifices in order to be able to forgive sins. God is interested in our broken and contrite heart. When our hearts are contrite, then the offerings and sacrifices will have value.

Has this changed since the time the psalmist wrote or sang this psalm? Which is the more inclusive concept, atonement or forgiveness? Do we today always require atonement of each other (of our children for example) before we will forgive them? Within our cultural milieu is it possible that an overemphasis on atonement theology places an unnecessary limitation upon God and upon our perception of God?

Atonement theology is useful and valuable within our understanding of God’s grace, but perhaps it should be seen as only one of the ways in which we may perceive God’s action in Christ and in history. Atonement theology was a way in which some of the followers of Jesus after the crucifixion of Jesus saw some very important good that God had brought about through that tragic event. Atonement theology is one of the ways in which we continue as Christians to see the crucifixion of Jesus, but it is only one of the ways in which we understand the crucifixion of Jesus. Considered together with the resurrection of Jesus, we see the action of God as a vindication of Jesus and of his life. God did not prevent the Romans from crucifying Jesus, but we believe that God vindicated Jesus and made the Romans powerless via the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. For more about this, see Hans Kueng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 419-436.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

This text elaborates on the ideas of Psalm 51 beautifully and even more vividly. Again in relation to this text, let us consider the issues and questions raised above about atonement and forgiveness. Atonement is very important in “classical” Christian theology. There is no subject, however, in which Jews and Muslims are more significantly different from Christians than on the subject of atonement. Jews and Muslims understand and teach that no person, even God, can atone for the sins of someone else. For Jews and for Muslims, each person is totally responsible and accountable for that person’s own sins.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is very important for Jews and for Muslims, as well as for Christians. We agree within these three religions that we should always seek forgiveness from people whom we have harmed and then also from God, asking God to spare God’s people, as this Joel 2 text indicates.

For more about the understanding among Jews and among Muslims that no one can atone for the sins of someone else, see Hassan Hathout, Reading the Muslim Mind (Plainfield: American Trust, 1995), 33-35, and my Blessed to be a Blessing to Each Other: Jews, Muslims, and Christians as Children of Abraham in the Middle East (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2008), 51-54.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A glance at the Synoptic parallels shows that except for Matthew 6:19-21 the components of this periscope are peculiar to Matthew. We can say, therefore, that the materials in Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-18 are best understood as teachings of the leaders of the Matthean community in Jesus’ name. The positive aspects of these teachings are certainly applicable for us today as Christians. We should help those who are in need, we should pray to God, and we should fast, but we should do none of these in order to be praised. The negative anti-Jewish aspects that condemn the Jews and their leaders in these verses are not applicable for us today.

Isaiah 58:1-12

As indicated above, the inclusion of Isaiah 58:1-12 as a text to be read and reflected upon on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season brings a very important dimension to our observance of Lent. It reminds us that if want to do something that is truly important during Lent or at any other time, we should help people who are in need, especially those who are oppressed economically, politically, socially, and in any other way. That is what the inspired speaker and writer in this Isaiah tradition text said and apparently did. That is what the Jesus of history said and that is what the Jesus of history did. There can be no doubt about that.

Lent is the season of the Church Year in which we focus in our study and reflection upon the Jesus of history. There are a multitude of texts in the Four Gospels that are evidence of words and actions of the Jesus of history in support of those who were oppressed during that time. There is very little evidence in support of Jesus himself fasting, other than at the beginning of his public service in the Synoptic Gospels, and nothing about his giving up for a few weeks a bad habit that was obviously harmful to himself or to others. If we want to be like Jesus during Lent, or better yet throughout the year and during our entire lives, let us do whatever we can to change systems that rob the oppressed and give excess bounty to the rich, within our own nation and throughout the world.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen