A long time ago, a friend decided that she wanted to learn more about the subject of piety. She enrolled in a class at the Candler School of Theology, the Methodist seminary at Emory University, to study the subject. Her interest was strictly personal, and she had no intention of pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. At the end of the semester, she knew her days of seminary were over. The systematic, academic approach to the subject was not to her liking, as she had hoped for something that would result more in personal transformation rather than academic preparation for a vocation. She liked to joke that she made a mistake when she enrolled, thinking the class would be about “pie-eating.”
This is why people who have survived the pressures of seminary work so hard to offer personal transformation through bible study and preaching. We understand that people come to church and bible study classes because they are hungry for a spiritual change … and apparently pie. (Have you ever been to a church potluck supper? I rest my case.)
Jesus didn’t have much to say about pie eating, but he taught a lot about piety.
Our Scripture from the book of Matthew today deals with piety head-on. But first, let’s set a base line definition of the word. According to Dictionary.com, piety refers to reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations: devotion to God.
Now let’s see what Jesus had to say:
Matthew 6 (Common English Bible)
“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Rule One: don’t draw attention to your piety.
2 “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
Rule Two: don’t draw attention to your piety.
5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
Rule Three: don’t draw attention to your piety.
7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.
Rule Four: pray like you mean it, using as few words as possible.
Jesus addressed the Pharisees in this passage, who loved to make a big show of their religious practices. But in some ways, he is addressing us as well. If you are driving around in a Lexus with an ichthus sticker on your bumper while cutting people off and flipping them the bird, you might need to re-think your piety. If you are making a show of attending church in your loveliest finery on Sunday and then refusing to help the poor in your community on Monday, you might need to re-think your piety. If you harbor a grudge against a relative, talk down to your spouse, cheat on your taxes, or neglect to give in proportion to your income, you might need to re-think your piety.
Piety is a 24/7 thing for Jesus. May it be the same for us as well.