So far as I can tell, the only sense of humor exhibited by the people who assembled our lectionary readings is the assignment of Jesus’ remarks condemning public displays of piety to Ash Wednesday, the day when most of us are going to display the ashes of penance on our foreheads. Jesus says explicitly to wash your face so that others will not see your pious practice, which is for the sight of God alone. How can we take this text seriously, given what we are about to do?
Ash Wednesday, of course, introduces the season of Lent in which we systematically, for a set period of forty days plus Sundays, come to terms with our sins, individual and corporate. Coming to terms with sins, first means identifying them. Then it means acknowledging them as our own, taking responsibility for them. Finally it means doing something about them, making amends where we can, discontinuing sinful behavior, and altering sinful conditions and institutions. All this counts as Lenten penance. We undertake Lenten penance, not because we win salvation by it, but as a response to God’s gracious salvation that allows us to become holy through penance in the first place. Additionally, Lenten penance prepares us to participate in Christ’s passion, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, as that is celebrated in Holy Week which concludes the Lenten season.
Now Jesus was suspicious of this high-powered organized, indeed ritualized, piety because it was so susceptible to hypocrisy. He thought that conspicuous displays of self-discipline and charity can be ruined in their true intent by being used to persuade others that we are better than we are. If we practice pious acts, or dress in special ways, or beat ourselves up in front of others so that they will think us especially religious, then that skewed motive takes away the real religious value of what we do. Jesus was particularly concerned about hypocrisy, more than any other sin, perhaps. The reason, I believe, is that hypocrisy substitutes a lie for honesty, a lie disguised as pious honesty. Honesty is made to undermine itself. Without honesty there can be no true love. Without honesty, people cannot present themselves to God except as condemned already. Jesus was concerned that the practices of Judaism in his time were hypocritical and therefore self-defeating.
Today we need not be concerned about hypocrisy in Second Temple Judaism, which might not have been as universal as Jesus sometimes suggested. Rather, we need to be concerned about hypocrisy in our own Lenten penance. The danger is not that we will fool others. People in our time, perhaps because of Jesus’ teaching, are highly attuned to pick up on hypocrisy. The danger is that we will try to fool ourselves. That sounds like a contradiction, does it not? How can we lie to ourselves? It’s easy: we deny our real motives.
Would it not be easy to wear the ashes of penance today in the ostensible conviction that we are going to come to terms with our sins when in fact it is a cover for our real intent of maintaining things as they are? We can be firmly convinced this morning that we shall be honest about our sins, but have all the defense mechanisms in place to prevent our discovering the ones that lie below the surface. The thing about penance is that it is a process, one that takes time, and one that turns up new and worse material along the way. You might think you suffer from the sin of sloth or laziness, when in fact you might be in flight from life itself, from the life God has given you, from God. You might think you suffer from the sin of selfishness and greed, when in fact you might be in despair because you think your life is meaningless unless you own or control something. You might think you suffer from the sin of hatred and anger toward others, when in fact you might hate yourself, God’s own precious gift. You cannot love others if you hate yourself. So Jesus warns us that we should beware of hypocrisy in our Lenten journey when we beat ourselves up about the surface sins in order to hide from ourselves the deeper ones that have to do with rejecting God’s gracious creation. True piety requires an honesty that we can acquire only with great difficulty as we open ourselves to God.
This focus on personal piety was not at the center of Jesus’ attention. He was more concerned about the hypocrisy that affected the people as a whole. Our nation’s Christian leaders tell us, and themselves, and possibly believe, that the way to peace is through making war. What a disastrous self-deception that has been! Is the real unacknowledged motive a misplaced pride in power, or greed for oil, or desire to impose an American will? Our nation’s Christian leaders tell us, and themselves, and possibly believe, that the way to economic justice is to enrich the rich more and more so that they will spend their money on things that benefit the poor. What a disastrous self-deception that has been! Is the real unacknowledged motive a desire to be admired and accepted by the rich and powerful? Our nation’s Christian leaders tell us, and themselves, and possibly believe, that our freedoms should be curtailed, including the freedom of information, because that will limit the freedom of terrorists to do bad things. But then the terrorists will have won without the necessity of bombs. Our nation’s self-understanding as a bastion of peace, justice, and democratic freedom has been turned to a hypocritical cover for the sins of empire and oligarchy. Can we enter the season of Lenten penance warned about the need not to be fooled by this hypocrisy?
I invite you to wear the ashes of penance as a sign of vigilance against the hypocrisy of pious self-righteousness that prevents true penance. Let this be a badge of courage to face the humiliating revelations that our virtues might in fact cover faults, and that the little sins we acknowledge might open as windows onto our true condition. This badge also signifies, always remember, that no matter how bad we find ourselves to be, God redeems and loves us.