Perils of Piety

December, 2008

At church we are wending our way through the Sermon on the Mount again.  As usual,  a slow read draws me in.  Last night we took on the first half of Matthew 6,  about the practices of piety: alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  These practices cover the full gamut of our relationships: our relationship  to others,  to God, and to ourselves.  Such practices are neither unique to Jews and Christians, nor, for Jesus, optional: “When you give alms…, pray…, fast…”    Indeed, as Jesus intensified the moral “thou shalt not’s”  in Matthew 5, here in Matthew 6 he purifies the positive demands.

The first word of Jesus about  piety  is “Beware.”  That is worth pondering. Not everything done in the name of religion, not every religious act, is spiritually praiseworthy. There is a warning label on these prescriptions.

The specific danger all three share, according to Jesus,  is that each may become playacting.  Jesus uses the word “hypocrite,”  a term from the world of theater.  The danger is that our religious practice may be a lovely performance done to be seen and applauded by others.  Piety can lapse into pure theater, to create an affect.

How shall we protect ourselves against parody, playacting, and pretense? Jesus deals with this in each of the practices.

ALMS. When you give benevolence don’t seek to draw attention to yourself.   Don’t cue up the soundtrack to  swell dramatically before you offer your help.   Don’t call the press and remind them to bring photographers. Don’t give interviews.  Those who do good to impress bystanders, or even just the person they help, have already gotten all the kick they need out of being benevolent.  When you act to make life better for the person who is hurting do it with least attention to the fact that you are doing it.  God won’t miss the fact you have done it  just because it was below radar for everyone else.  And that should be the point of piety: who we are before God.

The danger of being mere performance still exists if the only audience is ourselves.  Jesus warns us against arranging things to impress ourselves with how good we are. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In giving alms our focus should be on the person needing help not on how much we are helping or how many people knew about it.

PRAYER. Likewise in praying our attention should be on God and not on those who hear our out-loud prayers. We have all heard some dear person in public prayer make announcements not for God’s benefit but for the congregation. One member remembers a seminary service at which one person prayed, “And Lord you wouldn’t believe what terrible condition those children are in.”  I recall hearing in a prayer a forgotten “P.S.” to the morning’s announcements: “And Lord remind all the members of the special speaker coming next Thursday at 10:00 AM.”

It is easy when praying aloud in a group to drift into mainly talking to them, to be more conscious of them as auditors than of God.

There is an important “on the other hand” needs to be heard at this point. Publicly giving alms, praying, and fasting are important too. Children learn how to live watching what others do. Our example gives others encouragement in practicing their faith. It would impoverish our communal spiritual life if believers kept their religion such a secret and their acts of piety so completely out of sight that there were never any  examples to emulate. Who of us would ever have learned to pray if we had never heard someone else?

Maybe we could allow ourselves to read it this way: if the only time you are good is when you get good press for it. If the only time you pray is when you are called on to do it in a public worship service. ….Well, you have to examine whether generosity toward others or affection for God are really in your heart.

Praying alone does not eliminate the possibility that we are talking for some audience other than God.   Sometimes “adding empty phrases” or making our prayers long winded and repetitious is just a matter of being in love with our own voice or cleverness.  If we are focused on God’s listening,  we will not be afraid to spend part of prayer in silence.

FASTING. The holidays is hardly the time to pick up a text on fasting.  When is it that we forget to eat? When we forget our usual care for ourselves?  We look down in the emergency room and see we are still in our slippers and pajamas.  It is in a time when our whole focus has been devoted to an emergency or a project so important that we forgot everything else.

Maybe the importance of fasting is that we say no to the demands that are pushed on us from outside or inside in order to create the space for a different priority.

There was a wonderful smoragsbord at a restuarant in Winston Salem.  You could order from the menu, but most everybody went for the food bar which had more dishes than you could count. Nobody I knew ever stopped eating at a sensible point because they didn’t want to miss any of the dishes.

We are like that in life. So determined to experience it all that we end up scattered and glutted. The boundaries are blurred between our experiences and sensations and our soul.  The most important spiritual discipline in relation to ourselves is to be able to say “no” to the plethora of urges and distractions–even when so many of them are innocent in themselves–  so that our “yeses” can be strong and clear.  We can’t do it all. We can’t have it all. We can’t experience it all.  Beautiful gardens need weeding and thinning.

But it spoils it if you are so grieving what you are saying “no” to that you are perpetually long-faced. “Do you know how much I have given up to be religious!?”  All that means is that we have “fasted from” without “fasting toward.”  Your attention is still on the thing you are trying to delete. It is still very much there.

Fasting only works if you are focused on some work or need or devotion that displaces the thing you are giving up.  As Bushnell put it, “the expulsive power a new affection.”

When the only point of fasting is fasting, fasting quickly loses its point.

Conclusion. What do we make of secrecy in the practice of faith? Perhaps the purest path of spirituality does not spend time on  labels. It is content to be the thing rather than saying what it is.  Perhaps the purest Christian is the least self-conscious about it. “Lord when did I ever see you naked and clothe thee?”

In putting faith into practice Jesus warns us against spinning ourselves– even to ourselves.


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