What’s Wrong With: Public Piety?

Praying hands, by Jan SmithA lot of my blog posts deal — either directly or tangentially — with the problem of Christians engaging in the practice of public piety. It’s not really a concern for people of other religions, but it should matter a great deal to Christians, and it’s something they ought to avoid. I mentioned this particular problem in my page about various scriptural passages that Christians love to disobey, but I’d like to address this particular topic more closely and in greater depth here.

There’s a very important reason why I say Christians expressing their piety publicly is a problem, and that’s because Jesus, the founder of their own religion, clearly and explicitly forbid them ever to do it. The chief passage I’ve cited, which contains this injunction, is recorded in the gospel according to Matthew:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” …

“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)

This pithy passage is right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.

I’d like to go over this passage piece by piece. Jesus begins with a general statement, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” He then provides a negative example, concerning the giving of alms, “do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,” then a positive example, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret.” Jesus then goes to another example, that of praying, again starting with a negative example, “you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners,” and follows this with a positive example, “when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father.”

After this, Jesus continues explaining how to pray (this is Matthew 6:7-15, which includes the famous “Lord’s Prayer”).

After this discussion, Jesus resumes talking about other forms of piety, this time fasting; again he starts that off with a negative example, “do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do,” and then provides a positive one, “anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men.”

After this, Jesus moves on to other topics. But each of Jesus’ aforementioned positive examples of piety is punctuated by the very same comment: “your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” This is the central point of what Jesus conveys to his followers, but it’s also one that many Christians either cannot or will not accept. And that is, that God knows what they’re doing. They don’t have to do it publicly. Praying, alms-giving, and fasting are all very effective in private. Doing any of these things in public, solely to impress other human beings, isn’t what God wants of them. He doesn’t care about any of that, and neither should his followers. And Jesus made this clear, three times.

What’s more, by discussing three different forms of righteous expression (i.e. alms-giving, praying, and fasting) he made it clear he was not only talking about one of them, but about the expression of piety more generally. Each such example he followed by stating the same generalized principle — that expressing one’s religiosity in secret is just as effective, in God’s eyes, as it is in public.

But it didn’t just stop with what Jesus said. Elsewhere in the same gospel, Jesus is reported to have gone off to pray alone, even though he had some of his followers with him (e.g. Matthew 14:23 and 26:39). Especially at Gethsemane, Jesus might have wanted his apostles to have been aware of his approaching woeful state and thus gain their sympathy, when he prayed, “let this cup pass from Me.” But he didn’t do it. He kept it between himself and the Father. On these occasions, Jesus practiced what he’d preached, and was teaching by doing rather than merely by telling.

Now, a lot of Christians will respond to all of this by saying, “Jesus wasn’t forbidding public prayer or public piety entirely. He merely forbid it in order to get the attention of others.” It’s true that the point of Jesus’ teaching was to avoid attention-getting behaviors, but his forbidding of public piety was absolute, and that’s why: If his followers never pray publicly, they’ll never be tempted to do so just to be noticed. See how that works? It’s actually very clever … and if only Christians would just obey it, it’d be very effective.

Overall, I’m not sure how Jesus could have been clearer on the subject of public piety: He explicitly condemned it in his followers, and refrained from it in his own behavior. He cited multiple negative and positive examples of righteous expression. Even so, most Christians are eager to express their righteousness publicly. They’re happy to do so in the form of public prayers, in all sorts of venues, and in the form of putting up Decalogue idols, crosses, etc., in places where they’ll be seen. None of them has yet been able to explain how or why these are things their Jesus wanted them to do.

Photo credit: Jan Smith, via Flickr.