Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.Matthew 6:1-4
The chief danger in acts of piety is that the act itself will become its focus. This focus is evident even in the evolution of the word pious or piety. At the beginning of its use, it simply meant deep devotion or acts of devotion. But in the centuries following that original meaning, it has also come to be used to mean showiness, doing something for the attention it brings, or to show one’s righteousness or religious superiority. When people use the second meaning, they are being sarcastic or critical.
Clearly, Jesus meant piety in its original use. “Don’t do your good deeds publicly…in order to be seen by others.” Jesus illustrated this public demonstration when he told a parable about a Pharisee who stood in a public place in the Temple and declared out loud, “Lord I’m glad that I’m not like that Publican over there…I fast twice a week and give a tenth of my income…” Luke 18:9-14. Out loud, so that everyone could hear.
In Luke 16:14, Luke comments on the Pharisees who loved money and ridiculed Jesus who said that you can’t serve two masters, God and money. Then this. “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
One of the most scathing things that God said about piety done to make a show is found in Isaiah 1:10-20. What God said is shocking, especially given how much western practices of piety are so showy and meant to impress. Here’s what God says about that.
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them….even though you make many prayers, I will not listen….Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean…cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.Isaiah 1:10-20
It’s a good thing to remember that the only audience that should matter to us is God. Paul said that even if you give away everything you own but lack love, it means nothing. Isaiah said that God is not impressed with showy works of piety but would rather that we take care of those who need it.
The problem, of course, is that we humans are the ones that enjoy the big show. So what’s the point, in that case?
Prayer: O God, you created us, so what can we possibly give you? You have told us very clearly that what you want are honest hearts and genuine concern for people in need. We want to be that kind of peopl0 who give You, not the showy ritual, but the good and humble gift given in private. In Jesus’ name. Amen.