“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” ― John Chrysostom
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” -Matthew 6:1
I have never been very pious. And I am almost always suspicious of the overly pious. Piety always seemed to be a way of showing off how really religious a person is. And I never thought that the whole God thing was about being best at your religion. I think Jesus agreed. He was often quite critical of those who appeared to be very religious but were missing the point. (See Matthew 23) And he championed those who may have not been religious or even of the right religion and yet did the will of God. The Syrophoenician woman (Mathew 15:21-28) who actually argued with Jesus (not a very pious thing to do) was a woman of great faith or so Jesus concluded after his encounter with her. Wrong religion and not pious but filled with faith. I think that is what Jesus encourages.
My suspicion of piety and the pious makes Lent a little daunting. It is often seen as a time of challenging oneself to greater piety. In my mind nothing could be a bigger waste of time especially if you give any credence to the popular approaches to Lent. Who hasn’t heard the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?” As if the only way to move closer to God is to give up something. I don’t think God really cares if you give up chocolate or some other thing you like or crave for Lent. In a world filled with darkness and hatred where millions of children go to bed hungry giving up chocolate or anything else doesn’t matter much. I hardly think the best way to God is through self-denial. Jesus did say that the great commandments were to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself. Seems to me if you want to be disciplined in your faith for Lent it would have more to do with fulfilling these basic commandments rather than some small self-improvement. To my mind that would mean taking something on rather than giving up something. If you want to truly make this Lent a celebration of God’s work in the world find something important to do. Right now there is a particularly wanting world looking for God’s presence.
Jesus tells us, in his Sermon on the Mount, that we ought to love our enemies. Now that is something to take on for Lent. Who scares you? Who do you especially despise? Is there a group you avoid? Maybe work on that prejudice. Make friends with someone you would never otherwise. Help someone or group you usually avoid. Open your heart to forgive and reach out to someone you have closed off for years. This is the work that will move you toward God.
Go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give of yourself in ways you never thought you could. That is pleasing to God. That is a way to prepare for the miracle of Easter. Grow in patience, kindness, understanding, and hospitality. There are many such opportunities right now as we find ourselves so horribly polarized and in opposition to one another. This is not the world God wants but there is hope. People of faith and good will can come together serving God for the good of the whole. Piety can’t do that but faith and hope and love can. Those are Lenten disciplines for all of us all our lives.
Tim Ives is the minister at the Scarborough Presbyterian Church. He is also a New York State licensed Psychoanalyst in private practice in Bedford Hills, New York.