Misdirected Piety, Matthew 6:1-6,16-20
Lent is as important to the faithful as it is to the believer who has strayed. Lent reminds the faithful follower not to display his or her faithfulness as a badge of honor. The very idea flies in the face of humility and gratitude. Boasting negates the devotion it would have us believe it achieved. Lent has us focus on Christ, his suffering, and our yearning toward Christ-likeness. But, it is a fact that we can feign or even engage in suffering for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Misdirected is a nice word for such piety.
I have a friend who says that he has always wished he could be a former Marine. He has never wanted to go through the rigors of becoming a Marine; he just wants to be known as a former Marine. His quip is not only a left-handed compliment to the Marine Corps, it also sheds light on the one who wants to be known as dedicated to God. Dedication that focuses the spotlight on us was never dedication to God.
So, “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (v 1). That is timely advice for us during the season of Lent. The wanderer who returns to God will probably be sufficiently humbled by the process to stay humble during the process, but what of the faithful? What of those who welcome Lent even as they welcome Advent? One cannot be puffed up in their journey toward Christ-likeness, for the closer they get the more clearly they will see the one who humbled himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant, even unto death on the cross.
What glory was there in the betrayal, the mock trial, the scourging, the nakedness, the pain, the public humiliation? To boast in the glory of the cross is to see the irony of the suggestion. We are humbled by the cross, humbled all the more as we come closer to the cross and the Christ who died there. Shall we boast in that journey? Dare we draw attention to ourselves in light of Jesus’ magnificent suffering? No. Turn from us as we return to God. Our righteousness is as filthy rags.
In stark contrast Jesus says that a right understanding of fasting and giving and praying will have us engage in such acts of devotion in secret. This is the test of our devotion – done in secret, known only to God. It seems a waste at first, a waste like anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Think what could have been gained with the perfume. Think what could have been gained by acts of devotion done in the spotlight. It was the pastor/hymn-writer Isaac Watts who gave us the great lines to sing in worship, “My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride” and “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my God.”
While Lent may call us to public confession and congregational humility, it calls us equally to private devotion, to new and deeper commitments that can only remain at that depth if kept in secret. This is our personal salvation. This is our personal walk with God. This is Christ in us – the deep commitments made only to God and known only to God. They form us from within, producing a glow of which we are unaware.
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
-Isaac Watts, 1707