A Sermon for Ash Wednesday (22/02/23): Piety is Not a Means to Another End

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Jesus says:
Whenever you give alms. . .
And whenever you pray. . .
And whenever you fast. . .

Charitable giving, prayer and fasting, these are three things we might do, or do more of in Lent. And Jesus warns us how not to do them!

It is with charitable giving where we might recognise most clearly the kind of situation Jesus is thinking of. Now and again well known individuals, celebrities, the wealthy owners of well known companies, people in the public eye, receive recognition for a significant donation to a good cause. And many of the very wealthy maintain charitable trusts whose work is well reported. Whatever the good that these donations and trusts do, there hangs around them a suspicion of “hypocrisy.” That the cost to the individuals concerned is small in relative terms and that in fact that cost is really part of their PR budget. Such “generosity is what they must do in order to maintain a positive brand recognition. So when Jesus speaks we are able to recognise the kind of people we think he is talking about. And reassuringly it’s not us!

The decline in the Church and the change of its role in society is such that there is not much to be gained by a public display of religiosity. You are not going to get much credit for coming to church. Time was though, and it’s not so long ago, that church attendance, and presumably the prayer that went with it, were the markers of respectability. That to be seen as a trustworthy or reliable member of your community and of society you probably needed to go to church. To be worthy of advancement or acceptable to hold authority required the appearance of faith. Prayer was “socially” desirable. Just now and again, still, a politician or other public figure will wear their Christian faith as part of their public persona in a way that is meant to shine a positive light on themselves. But of course in our current climate, such displays are as likely to prompt ridicule as admiration. Often such publicly visible Christianity is avoided because society as a whole now shares Jesus’ suspicion that such public piety is merely a camouflage for something else that is far less appealing or attractive.

Of the pious practices that are mentioned here “fasting” is the one that is still done, especially in Lent. Even people with only the loosest of connections to the church might still give up something for Lent. Just yesterday I was talking to someone who doesn’t go to church but who was explaining to me how she always gave up chocolate and biscuits for Lent, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on why she did it. So it’s still a thing. Though perhaps people don’t put on the performance that Jesus criticises. One that makes sure everyone knows how much effort is being made, what is being endure for the sake of this fast. Perhaps secretly though we would all like to hear someone say “Wow, I don’t think I could manage that.” But so often what is given up in Lent is what was “bad” for us in any case, commonly sweet things. And the effort we make is validated because, we might lose some weight and perhaps conform more closely to society’s expectations for our size and shape, or we might just feel and be a little bit healthier as a result.

Which perhaps draws us into the point which Jesus is actually making about all three: charitable giving, prayer and fasting. Our acts of piety are not meant to serve some other purpose. They are not meant to profit us here and now. Jesus is critical of religiosity that tries to leverage piety for present advantage. Whatever form that piety takes! Because, he says, that is hypocrisy. He could quite easily have extended his list. He might easily have said: “Whenever you read your Bibles, Do not be like the hypocrites who only do so to make themselves sound clever, or to find ammunition to win an argument, So that they can put one over their neighbours.”
Piety, our practice of discipleship, the very sort of things we are likely to do in Lent, is not meant to serve another purpose. They are not meant to bring us any benefit in and from the world. Jesus is quite clear therefore, we should do our religion in secret.

Secret Christianity is a puzzle, a paradox to us. “How can the church grow if nobody knows about it, nobody sees us doing it?” In a time when the church is declining, when the message – the Good News of Jesus Christ is ever more drowned out by other voices in the world, surely, we reason, surely practicing our religion in secret, becoming even more invisible than we already are, surely that is the very last thing we would want to do. Those visible deeds, and the positive image that might go with them, that visibility is precisely the kind of publicity that the church needs in the sort of place we find ourselves in now! We need the world to notice us and to respond to bring to the church what it needs now
But discomfortingly, this is precisely what Jesus is warning us against. Using our religion to gives us some other benefit, even if that is building up the church, is what Jesus wants us to avoid.

What is the purpose of religion? There might be a lot of ways of answering that question. Perhaps one of the best simples answers is: to give glory to God. Though that perhaps is the true purpose of all creation and of human beings especially. Give glory to God. The purpose of Christianity is to restore that true purpose. Jesus is critical, condemning even, of religious practice that gives glory to the practitioners in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about these verses says: “Discipleship means estrangement from the world.” It does because it is meant to turn us away from concern about what the world thinks and towards a concern for the glory of God. So Jesus tells us:
When you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
Whenever you pray go into your room and shut the door.
When you fast put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting may not be seen by others.

Do your religion in secret, even in Lent. The purpose of charitable giving, praying, fasting or any other act of discipleship is not to benefit us in any way in the world here and now. The purpose of discipleship is to turn us into the kind of people who give glory to God.

Piety is Not a Means to Another End by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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