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The Pitfalls Of Practicing Piety

The Greatest Wonder Of All
Sermons for Lent and Easter
I have never liked the word "beware." It always seems to be written in intimidating block letters which suggest life-threatening consequences. The word brings to mind an experience I had as a 12-year-old paperboy. Entering a customer's yard I encountered a collie which, without provocation, charged me with fangs bared, knocking off my glasses and hurling me to the ground. I still remember its moist, rancid breath in my face. Hearing my screams, neighbors came and rescued me. That event not only changed my attitude toward dogs, it changed my life, forever.

That experience surfaced one day when I was on my way to visit prospective members, a delightful couple whom I had met earlier in church. As I approached their yard, the sign "Beware Of Dog" sped adrenalin through my system and nearly drove me away. Then I heard barking. The dog rounding the corner was not a collie but a much smaller dog, a cocker spaniel; still, I froze. I am sure it sensed my terror and was enjoying mastery of the situation. Unable to move, I had to wait until the owner came to rescue me by inviting me into their house. I mentioned that I thought it strange that their dog should be loose when the sign gave a warning.

"Oh, that," the man said, "the sign is meant to fool salesmen and prowlers; everyone in the neighborhood knows that Suzie wouldn't hurt anyone."

Jesus isn't trying to fool anyone. He places the "beware" in our text today for the precise reason that we can easily wander into danger in our spiritual life and put our souls in peril. That word of warning is especially timely as we worship this evening. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday has been a day of repentance; that is a good and godly act, but it is precisely at that point that Jesus comes to us and says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others." Practicing piety is the effort we make to impress everyone with our goodness, or our rightness, or our moral superiority.

The world in which Jesus lived was rampant with examples. The Jewish Talmud describes several. For instance there were the "Shoulder Pharisees" who carefully obeyed the laws but wore their good deeds on their shoulders, as it were, trying to publicize how virtuous they were and how many wonderful acts they had done. They obeyed the Law, but did so in order to be seen by others.

There were also "Bleeding Pharisees." In the Palestine of Jesus' day women were held in low esteem, and men of religion were not to talk to a woman in public. But these fellows went even further. They would not even look at a woman in public. They would shut their eyes as they walked, and as a result, bumped into walls, trees, or whatever was in their path. Therefore they bruised and wounded themselves and those bleeding sores gained them the reputation of being especially pious.

"Tumbling Pharisees" are a third type mentioned in the Talmud. These men walked with exaggerated humility. They demonstrated this by refusing to lift their feet off the ground and so they tripped over anything in their path. Their posturing was intended to advertise their piety so that in reality it was motivated by pride.

Strange as those Pharisees appear, they have no corner on hypocrisy. You and I are not unlike those religious leaders; we find ways to parade our piety before others in many different ways.

Take the example William Styron draws for us in his book, Lie Down in Darkness. Helen Loftis, divorced from her alcoholic husband and alienated from her rebellious daughter, decides to pull her family together for the daughter's marriage. She will impress everyone, she decides, by presenting only the face of humility and courage and gentle good will. She carefully connives to make herself look good. Of course she is being dishonest, but "Oh, what was honesty, anyway? She could discard honest intentions to make this day come true. "Anything, anything," she had said to herself ... "anything at all." Anything that people should know Helen Loftis was a good mother, a successful mother. Anything that people should know: it was Helen Loftis, that suffering woman, who had brought together the broken family."

Consider all the gossip which travels like wildfire among us; all of it, all of it poorly veiled attempts to place ourselves above others. Put-downs, criticisms, pot-shots: all are ways we practice our piety, trying to elevate ourselves by judging others. There's a certain amount of twisted pleasure to be experienced when piously practicing character assassination. It happens all the time.

Do not imagine that pastors are immune from well-rehearsed religiosity. There is no greater temptation in the ministry than to be a good pastor so that people will point and say, "That's our pastor. We really like him or her." Do you think that could be anything but music to our ears? Why do we become pastors? Submission to God's will? Complete reliance upon Christ? A desire to give our lives away like a suffering servant? We trust that those things are part of a pastor's call into the ministry, but we are like you; we want to be loved and accepted and therefore must confess that our good deeds can be motivated more by a desire to be liked by our parishioners than out of love for them or the Lord. However, this practice of piety isn't reserved only for the clergy.

When any one of us examines ourselves carefully, we are sure to find that we are secretly living with the thought pattern of reward and punishment. That is, deep down, the motivation for our kindly, unselfish acts is governed by our desire for prestige, or honor, or a good reputation before God and one another. Helmut Thielicke, the great German preacher asks, "Do we not all strut a bit upon a lighted stage and assume poses, because the good Lord and our neighbors and friends are sitting in the audience and we would like to have some applause and lots of flowers and handshakes?"2 Clearly our need for the warm glow of approval is often disguised as altruism.

That's why Jesus puts his "beware" in front of this statement, "... in order to be seen by men; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." You will be seen by others, that's all. When people give in order to be seen by others they get recognized; they find their name on the list of donors. They get their reward then they get credit for what they have done. But it's a pretty hollow satisfaction compared to that which comes to those who give, not because they will get good press, but because they are in love with the cause; they believe in it. So they are moved to invest, not only their gifts, but also their lives.

Jesus says there are real rewards in life, although Christians who focus on grace as God's undeserved gift, tend to be a little embarrassed about such talk. But Jesus was quite clear on the matter. He said there is such a thing as rewards, or consequences. Not rewards in the sense that one earns them. But outcomes. Results which follow every choice we take, every decision we make, every road we embark on.

Some seem to feel that rewards have no place in religious life; virtue ought to be its own reward. A person ought to be good and do good simply and only for goodness sake; it's called "the theology of the empty cup." That theology emphasizes complete self-sacrificing service, reflected pretty well in the following words of the good Christian hymn: "Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling; Naked come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die."

It's true, and it's great. But Jesus still talks about rewards, consequences. The Psalmist cried out, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." Later he said, "My cup runs over." But we are to notice very carefully the nature of the reward. What kind of rewards are they? What kinds of outcomes can you expect if you live obediently and faithfully? Well, it doesn't have much to do with having a higher standard of living. That isn't the promise. It doesn't necessarily mean a long life, or a healthier one. It doesn't even promise a happier one; Paul discovered that.

What are the rewards like? Listen to what our Lord says, "You have been faithful in little things," and you will be rewarded, how? "I will set you over much (Matthew 25:21)." In other words he said, "Because you have been faithful in a few things, I will give you greater responsibility!"

Do you understand? The reward for being faithful is a life requiring greater faithfulness. The reward for being responsible in this world in small ways is to be given responsibility in larger ways. The reward for doing hard work is the opportunity for doing harder work. The reward for loving is the capacity to love more, to understand more, to forgive more, to become involved more deeply. Is that the kind of reward we are looking for?

I have read that more and more people in industry and in the military are refusing to rise from the ranks when they are offered a promotion. They turn it down. Why? Because a promotion means heavier responsibilities; it means making more decisions, it means taking more work home at night, it means increased anxiety. This is the reward that God holds out to us. To some it sounds more like punishment. Only those who love God and desire above all else to serve him will ever understand.

Robert Caulk, a German pioneer in bacteriology, struggled for years working in a shed, working with apparatus tied together with strings. Then one day some of his friends called him to the attention of the German government and he was given an important position in the health office in Berlin. There he was given a fine laboratory with all kinds of modern equipment and a couple of assistants. He was given a generous grant of money and Robert Caulk was overjoyed. Why? Simply because now he could do more, because now he could expend himself to the tune of 60 to 70 hours a week doing the kinds of things he knew had to be done with his guinea pigs and his test tubes. He now had his reward, the opportunity to work harder, to give more of himself, to serve.

That kind of a reward doesn't have much to do with knowing for sure you are one of God's favorites. You can't reduce it to self-centered consumerism where the one with the most is best blessed by God. There are rewards in the Christian life and they are abundant, but they seem strange to the person who does not possess a vibrant faith, absolutely unintelligible to anyone who does not love God. Nor does the great song, the great verse of hymnody make any rhyme or reason at all, "Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to the mountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die."

Not that piety is bad. It is the practice of piety, its rote rehearsal which is so distasteful to Jesus. Those who practice piety do good for the recognition it gives them. True piety, on the other hand, seeks to honor God for the wonder of creation and the greater wonder of Jesus Christ. The practice of piety centers on the deed, while true piety seeks to serve a need. Mock piety makes me feel good; genuine piety enables someone else to rejoice. False piety glorifies me; true piety glorifies Christ.

So we are given the privilege of piety, to do good so that others may see what we do and give glory to God. That kind of life-giving, Jesus says, will be rewarded. He once put it this way, "They that have given up brothers, sisters, father and mother, or children for my sake will receive a hundred fold (Matthew 19:29)." Imagine in this life having hundreds of mothers, hundreds of fathers, hundreds of brothers and sisters, hundreds of children to love and care for, to agonize over; to weep with and to rejoice with. That is the reward, the glory and the wonder of Christians who give generously, pray sincerely, live life compassionately and lay up for themselves treasures in heaven. Amen.

Heavenly Father, we confess our sins to you but then rely on our meager acts of goodness for our salvation. In your great mercy transform our hearts and minds that we may accept your gift of salvation and rest only on the merits of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. During this Lenten season send your Spirit to constantly remind us of who we are that, for the joy that is set before us, we simply and faithfully offer ourselves to your service. In Jesus' precious name. Amen.


1. Styron, William. Lie Down in Darkness. A Signet Book. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1951. p. 261.

2. Thielicke, Helmut. Life Can Begin Again. Fortress Press. Philadelphia, 1963. pp. 82-83.

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