Matthew’s Lessons on Lenten Humility

his Madonna of humility by Domenico di Bartolo (1433) domain

If one can get past the nauseating image of John the Baptist dining on locusts, (which may our own lot soon – Ed.) chapter three of Matthew’s Gospel reinforces the identity of Christ as Son of God and sets the scene for His humble ministry and servant leadership. When John foretells the coming of Christ to the sinners he baptizes, he counts himself “not worthy to carry His sandals” (Matthew 3:11 NAB). Now, when Jesus arrives, He insists on being baptized by John – who eventually concedes despite his evident feeling of inferiority. This is one of many examples of Jesus’ teaching humility. In this case—as Francis of Assisi preached 1200 years later—by actions and not words, though both used words when necessary.

At this moment, not only is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God made clear again, it is important to note that all three Persons of the Trinity are present. Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan as the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and God the Father speaks from the heavens. “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17).

In chapter four, Jesus is tempted as he fasts in the desert for 40 days. Here we see the scriptural roots of our own Lenten sacrifices. “And afterwards he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). When we empty ourselves of vices and material things during fasting, we make room for Christ, we create a hunger for him.

A rich chapter, number five presents us with Jesus laying out the basics of his teachings. He essentially offers his syllabus for his ministry, clarifying old teachings and the law of the prophets. Humility remains a consistent theme in the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the persecuted; and in teachings on retaliation and enemies:

Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matthew 5:39).

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Probably the most popular content of the sixth chapter of Matthew is the Lord’s Prayer, known by many as “The Our Father.” This is, however, only a small part of a robust chapter in which we are provided with more specific teachings relating to the concepts presented in chapter five and continuing the theme of humility: Do not be like the hypocrites. In his teachings on almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and material wealth, Jesus calls out those who desire to be perceived as holy. During my year of discernment in seminary, we called them naval-gazers: those men who walked around with hands folded, staring down in order to be seen as praying all the time.

Today, we see a fine example of the hypocrites Jesus addresses. One merely need log onto a social media platform on Ash Wednesday to see the plethora of posts about what each individual is giving up for Lent. “Look how holy I am,” they seem to proclaim, “Pay attention to my sacrifice.” My response:

When you fast, do not look gloomy and share that gloom on Facebook and Instagram like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance and announce their holiness publicly, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face before posting a selfie to Instagram or a video to TikTok, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. He’s probably not one of your social media followers anyway.

The seventh chapter continues the key teachings of Christ, the first of which I must heed before posting the above in self-righteous response to others’ social media activity: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

In verse 12, Jesus sums up his teachings on humility while returning to his original point of keeping the law. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you,” he says. “This is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

When searching for a concise guide of the teachings of Christ—especially during the season of Lent—the Gospel of Matthew is a perfect place to start.