[This was shared during Ash Wednesday worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on February 17.]
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Psalm 51
“Beware,” Jesus says at the beginning of this evening’s Gospel lesson, “of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Piety, you know, is a blanket term for acts of devotion toward God. In our lesson, Jesus talks about three different acts of piety: almsgiving (that’s providing monetary and material aid to the poor); praying; and fasting. Good Jews were to do these things in Jesus’ day. They are to do them still today.
And, by His words to us tonight, we see that Jesus presumes that good Christians will do them as well. Notice what Jesus says: “Whenever you give alms…,” not “If you give alms…” “Whenever you pray…,” not “If you pray…” “Whenever you fast…,” not “If you fast…”
As unpopular or as disdained as the word may be, followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are called to strive living pious lives. We're to engage in disciplined devotion to God. That means, among other things, giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. It also means worshiping regularly, sharing our faith in Jesus with others, serving our neighbors, and studying God’s Word. Disciplines like these need to become habits for us.
But, Jesus tells us, we need to watch out for our motives in adopting them.
At a seminar, I once heard the pastor of a megachurch lamenting the motives of a number of people who joined his congregation. The congregation wasn’t just large (20,000 worshiping there every weekend), its members also included a number of wealthy business people. “Our church has become a place for people on the make to network,” I recollect the pastor saying. “I watch them exchanging business cards and I realize that the only reason many come to church is to see and be seen by others.” This guy also said, “Whatever their motives, I trust that, because with God all things are possible, the Word of God will do its stuff and they might find God changing their motives for worshiping every week.” Yet, it makes that pastor sad that so many of the thousands who worship at his church--among them, some of the most regular attenders--are just there to look good. “Beware,” Jesus says, “of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
You all are good enough Lutherans to know that no one’s motives are entirely clean and faultless.
Christians are, simultaneously, saints and sinners, forgiven sinners who trust in Jesus alone for our salvation.
This side of eternity, none of us engage in any otherwise commendable act of piety with absolutely pure motives. But Jesus warns us tonight not to be hypocrites in doing these pious things.
The word hypocrite that Jesus uses is the English version of a Greek word: ὑποκριτής (hupokrites). Hupokrites in ancient times was the term for an actor. In ancient Greek and Roman theater, actors wore masks. The word, hypocrite came to be used for people who strive to look one way to the world, but are really very different under their masks.
“You may be able to fool other people behind the masks you wear,” Jesus is telling us tonight. “You may fool people into thinking of you as a person of faith, when in fact, you just want to create that impression. But you can’t fool God!”
Our acts of piety—including receiving the imposition of ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday—are worthless if they’re just masks we wear.
If we come forward for the ashes, yet don’t really believe that we’re finite mortals who need God or sinners who need forgiveness, who are we fooling? Other people? Ourselves? God?
Our acts of piety are great, but no good if they’re masks. To God, they’re just perfume on a cesspool, lipstick on a pig, or, as Jesus Himself once put it in describing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, “whitewashed tombs.”
Psalm 51, which we read together earlier, has been attributed to King David. He wrote it, the Old Testament tells us, after the prophet Nathan confronted David for two sins which David had unrepentantly committed. David thought he’d successfully escaped responsibility for these sins: adultery with another man’s wife and the arranged murder his lover’s husband.
The mask of piety that David wore either fooled the people of Israel or they were so impressed or intimidated by David’s power that they said nothing.
But God prompted Nathan to call his king to repentance. David, the most powerful person in Israel, could have simply arranged for Nathan to die. It wouldn’t have been the first time or the last that a ruler covered up his sins with another one.
But, as the psalm shows us, David repented. He confessed his sins. He turned away from them, disavowing them. He asked God to create a new heart within him and to align his life with God’s Spirit.
In other words, David repudiated his own hypocrisy. He took off the mask. He knew that this was all God asks of us: to be real, to be authentic, to admit our sins, to acknowledge our need of God’s help to live as truly human beings. David put it this way in his prayer to God: “You desire truth in the inward being.”
David knew that when the focus of our piety is on God and not on ourselves or the esteem of others, the walls between God and us, between us and joyful living tumble down.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says that those who practice authenticity rather than hypocrisy in their devotion to God receive one reward, while the hypocrites get another.
Jesus isn’t saying that we earn eternity.
He is saying that we should aim higher than we are prone to do.
The fact is that, spiritually, we always get what we aim for.
The esteem of others and a comfortable life derived from pleasing the world can come to those for whom those things are important.
But on the day you and I see Jesus face to face, these things will be of no value.
Better to make our aim to connect with and surrender to God!
Then, we’ll not only enter eternity with Christ, Christ will also enter our lives today.
Authentic connection with the God we know in Jesus pays the greatest rewards, now and in eternity.
Make an authentic, honest relationship with Christ your aim and all the best things which God, our Maker and Savior, has in mind for us, will come to be. Amen