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Wednesday 14 February 2024 Ash Wednesday

A marshmallow world

Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

By Joseph Estorninho

Permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Westminster and Head of Music at a school in West London

Context: a Catholic celebration of Ash Wednesday evening Mass in a middle-class parish made up mostly of professionals and academics, many of whom attend with their families

Aim: to explore the Gospel reading, focusing on the works of mercy carried out in all humility with the hope for the reward of eternal life

In the 1960s and 1970s at Stanford University a now-famous study took place. The wonderfully catchy title, the ‘Cognitive-Affective Personality System’ became known as the perhaps less scientific-sounding but infinitely more appealing ‘Marshmallow Test’.


In one of the tests they left four-year-old children alone in a room with a marshmallow and told them that they had two options: 1) They could either ring a bell at any point to summon the experimenter and then eat the marshmallow, or 2) they could wait until the experimenter returned (about 15 minutes later), and if the marshmallow remained uneaten they would earn an extra (bonus) marshmallow. While many of the children succumbed to the marshmallow immediately before them, some could see beyond the immediate satisfaction to their promised augmented reward.



To the Jews there were three great works that were the hallmarks of a good life – almsgiving, prayer and fasting – and these are precisely the three acts on which Jesus shines the spotlight in the Gospel reading for today. These charitable works became formally ritualised but, as can happen with all rituals, over time the spiritual meaning became lost or distorted. By the time of Jesus these three wonderful acts of charity had lost their inherently spiritual nature while the ostentation and great show that accompanied them increased. The display served only to glorify the person rather than the act.



Almsgiving, although not mentioned in the earlier books of the Old Testament had become one of the principal works of piety by about 200 BC and is mentioned in the Talmud, a later collection of rabbinic teaching. To the Jew of Jesus’ day, almsgiving was the most sacred of all religious duties. We get an idea of just how elevated this was in the Hebrew word for ‘almsgiving’, tzedakah, which is the same word used for ‘righteousness’. But, over time, the spirituality that undergirded almsgiving had deteriorated. Rather than giving alms to relieve the suffering of the poor, people openly flaunted their generosity.



Prayer was one of those features that separated the Jews from their gentile neighbours. It was prioritised in a way that stood out from other religions of the time. Family prayer was said to have blessed the house in which it was said. Prayer was to be offered especially at the weekly Sabbath and the annual feasts that dotted the Jewish calendar.


The one prayer that had to be recited every morning and evening by all Jews was the Shema, the words of which come from Deuteronomy: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord’. Over time certain practices had crept in that devalued the spiritual nature of prayer itself. Rather than pray privately in a prayer addressed to God, men prayed out loud to signal to all within earshot just how pious they were.



Under Jewish law people were obliged to fast only once each year: on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. However, those who wanted to gain special merit could also fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Those who fasted observed certain conventions: whitening their faces and wearing dishevelled clothes. Rather than fasting in the spirit of penance in order to make it an acceptable offering to God, people went out and made sure that they had the biggest possible audience to witness just how pious and devout they were!



The Greek word that Matthew used for what we usually translate as ‘reward’ is apecho, which was really a commercial word used in business transactions meaning ‘payment received in full’. Tax collectors would issue receipts with the words ‘I have received (apecho) the full amount of tax due.’


The message of Jesus to his disciples 2000 years ago applies also to us today: those who give alms only to show the world their generosity; those who fast only to show the world just how abstemious they are; those who pray only to show the world their piety; all of them will have gained the admiration of their neighbours and their payment will have been made in full! Like those children in the Marshmallow Test Jesus sets before us the choice of that one small, immediate and worldly reward or a greater ‘reward from [our] Father in heaven’

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