Why Are You Doing This? (Ash Wednesday)

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“Why are you doing this?”

It’s a question all of us have been asked before.  When we were kids, that question usually implied we were doing something that we really ought NOT to be doing.

But as adults, we still get asked this question.  And sometimes, we even stop and ask ourselves, “Self, why are you doing this?”

In all honesty, sometimes the reason I’m doing something is:

  • Habit – and doing something because it’s a habit isn’t necessarily bad.  I brush my teeth because it’s a habit.  And sometimes, I remember to do daily tasks because they’re such an ingrained habit.  But good, bad or indifferent, we often end up doing stuff just because it’s a habit …
  • Tradition – and again, sometimes, I love the traditions.  During holidays, we eat foods that have been traditional in our families, and often we look forward to the “tradition” of getting together with family and friends at certain times of the year.  Tradition can be good, but sometimes we do things just because we’re stuck in a routine …
  • To make myself look good – honestly, many of us dress up more than we need to for events.  We clean our houses when company is coming over because we want to make it appear that our homes are cleaner and more ordered than they actually are.  And while we tell ourselves it’s to be polite for others, deep down, we’re doing this at least in part because it makes us look good …

“Why are you doing this?”  It’s the question that Jesus was really asking people in this section of the Sermon on the Mount that I just read.  And therefore, it’s also the question Jesus puts before us, as we begin our Lenten journey.

And like many of the things about which we’re asked as adults, “why are you doing this?” is not asked about bad things we might be doing.  Instead, Jesus asks the question about activities that are, or at least could be, good and laudable things.

“Why are you praying?”  “Why are you fasting?”  “Why are you giving to the poor?”

After all, aren’t these good things?  Aren’t many of them commanded in the Bible?

But for Jesus, righteousness isn’t found in the technicalities of what you do or don’t do.  Instead, Jesus calls us to a deeper kind of righteousness that’s found by asking WHY you do or don’t do these things.

Are you praying or fasting or helping the poor simply because:

  • It’s a habit – you know, you get in a routine, so you just do it.  You don’t really think about it, and so you might pray that prayer and not even remember what you said or what it meant…!
  • It’s tradition – you know, it’s Lent and so you “give up” something.  But it could be anything, and it doesn’t really matter what it is.  Because “giving up something” is just a thing you traditionally do during Lent …
  • It makes you look good, or feel better about yourself – you know, most of us want to help our neighbors, but we get busy.  So when Lent or Thanksgiving or Christmas comes around, we do a little bit more, and then we feel better about ourselves.  And it’s natural to feel better about ourselves, but giving isn’t supposed to be about us…

So why are we doing this? It’s a question for us, as it was for ancient peoples. And Jesus called them, and he calls us, to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Is what we’re doing or not doing helping us to grow spiritually?  Is what we’re doing or not doing drawing us closer to God or to our neighbors?  Is what we’re doing or not doing actually making a difference in the lives of others?

Those are the real questions of Lent.  Indeed, they’re the questions that Jesus always asks us.  But these days are a good time to pay special attention to the questions.  And so instead of thinking about WHAT you’re doing or not doing during Lent, instead consider the questions Jesus asks:

Why am I doing this?  How can this help me grow closer to God?  How can this help me focus on others instead of on myself?