Last week I mentioned the importance of church camp in the development of my spiritual life and my sense of call as a minister. As powerful as my camp experience was, it was not without a few shortcomings. One summer, one of our counselors told us that when we returned to school we needed to be sure to bow our heads and pray before lunch each day in the cafeteria. We were instructed to do this not just because of a desire to return thanks and not because we ought to pray, but we were told to do so because our classmates should see us praying; the point of our prayers was to be seen praying, as it would be a witness of faith. Our counselors also told us we should read our Bibles regularly, and as I did, I remembered the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount, where he says that we should pray in secret. The words of my counselor seemed to be in conflict with the instructions of my counselor.
The conflict between what I was told and what I read in this passage led me to what might seem like a strange practice to some people – before I eat a meal I always return thanks, but not always in an obvious manner. When I share a meal with another person or a group of people, I’m often asked to offer the blessing, which I do and I’m happy to do so, but when I’m by myself, I do not bow my head and I do not close my eyes, but I do return thanks. Praying in a way that is obvious to others makes me wonder about the difference between an authentic expression of faith and an activity that is done simply to gain attention.
Does that make me weird? It’s okay to nod your head yes, I know I’m weird.
Listen to what Jesus says in chapter six of the Sermon On the Mount –
1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This morning we are talking about The Danger of Self-Righteousness. What is the difference between a genuine expression of faith and self-righteousness? Let’s find out –
Self-Righteousness Feels the Need to Call Attention to One’s Actions.
One of the marks of self-righteousness that is identified by Jesus in this week’s Scripture passage is that of drawing attention to one’s spiritual practices and actions. Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them, Jesus said, implying that if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness. Self-righteousness is identified by a looking-over-the-shoulder way of living that wants to be sure others see what we are doing.
In Luke 18:9-14 we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom were praying in the Temple. The Pharisee is audacious enough to point out the tax collector, to whom he felt superior, and turned his prayer into a self-congratulatory speech. God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). I’m not sure how he managed to reach around and pat himself on the back and pray at the same time, but he did!
It’s very sad to see prayer used in a way that makes a point. Ministers, sadly, are some of the worst offenders about using prayer in this way. I’ve heard ministers offer a prayer in a worship service similar to this – Lord, we’ve got a really big decision coming up in our congregation. We need to do the right thing. We know the right things is to (decided in some particular manner). Lord, we know how you want us to decide, but there are some who have closed their minds and hearts to that way. Open their hearts, their minds, their eyes, and their ears to vote in the proper way, especially those elders who are being stubborn and unwilling to get with the program! Those kinds of prayers aren’t really prayers – they’re speeches, and everybody knows it, and they’re self-righteous as well.
Jesus encountered a lot of self-righteous people. And when he did, he was usually pretty tough on them. Consider these words from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of of deadmen’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:27-28; 33)
Wow. Those are tough words, spoken with strong emotion, and they probably didn’t win Jesus any fans among the Pharisees and others in the religious establishment. Jesus was hard on self-righteousness, I think, because it presents a distorted idea of the nature of faith and because it turns people away from faith, as they find it to be so unattractive.
I don’t think anyone has much tolerance for self-righteousness. Jesus certainly didn’t. But as much as we dislike self-righteousness, it’s important to remember that we all have the capacity to become self-righteous. It’s really not that difficult, because one of the traits of self-righteousness is the inability to recognize it, even in one’s self. While we are quick to recognize it in others, we are not so quick to identify it in ourselves.
People don’t generally know when they are being self-righteous. The Pharisees, who represent to us the very epitome of self-righteousness, wouldn’t have understood themselves to be self-righteous. In fact, the Pharisees as a group began in the time between the Old and the New Testaments as a movement to revive spirituality among the Jewish people. The Pharisees were a reaction to what was perceived as cold, stale, legalistic religion, so their roots were based in a good impulse, but they eventually came to represent exactly what they originally opposed. From a desire to encourage prayer they moved to offering showy prayers, standing in busy public places so they would be seen as they prayed. From a desire to encourage generosity they moved to a self-congratulatory attention-calling to their giving. From a desire to give to the needy they moved to a lesser concern with helping and a greater concern to receive the recognition for their generosity.
Sometimes, the best and most noble spiritual impulses can go awry. In fact, one of the lessons we can learn from those whom Jesus addressed is this – if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness.
Self-Righteousness want to serve as God’s gatekeepers.
I like the concerts at the State Fair, especially the free ones at Cardinal Stadium. I like them because, well, they’re free, and because they often feature the classic rock acts of my era of music. One year I was walking through Freedom Hall on my way to the stadium, and there was a long line of people waiting to be seated for a Kenny Chesney concert. I don’t mean to stereotype, but have you ever noticed how it’s just obvious that some people belong to a particular group? Like Kenny Chesney fans, for instance. The dress code was an assortment of boots, cowboy or baseball hats, and faded and torn jeans. I’m not being critical of country music, I’m just making an observation. Or maybe I’m just jealous because no one has ever written a song about my sexy tractor. Not the I even have a tractor. I have a sad, little riding mower and believe me, there is nothing sexy about it! But the point is, everyone in that line looked like they were going to a Kenny Chesney concert, except for one guy. In the midst of this long line of people was a guy who looked to be in his early to mid 20s. His hair was heavily jelled up in spikes and was dyed three or four different colors. He had a bunch of piercings and a big chain hanging down from his belt. I wondered if I should tell him Metallica wasn’t playing that night, because he just didn’t look like he fit in, and many of the people in the line were giving him looks that communicated that they didn’t think he fit in either.
Self-righteousness loves to communicate who fits in with God and who doesn’t. It has a uniform, and a set of beliefs and actions; it has a mold in which every one must fit perfectly. Self-righteous people want to define that mold, and they believe they are the ones qualified to serve as God’s gatekeepers, determining who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. They are the ones who will look at people and say, no, you don’t fit; you don’t belong; you’re not like us. The Pharisee in the Temple fit this bill perfectly, as he looked down on the tax collector in his self-congratulatory manner. It was very clear to him that he was one not only of God’s chosen but one of God’s preferred, and that gave him the right, in his mind, to determine that the tax collector was not worthy enough to be one of God’s children.
We hear a lot in recent years about the folks who are spiritual but not religious. I’m not going to criticize that group of people, because I believe churches had a big part in creating them. Far too often, churches appointed themselves the gatekeepers to the kingdom of God and would confidently, loudly – and often irritatingly – proclaim who was acceptable to God and who was not. Jesus very obviously kicked the legs out from under that high horse. Jesus very obviously went out of his way to bring into God’s favor those who were cast aside by the self-righteous. Jesus very obviously offered love, grace, and dignity to people who received none of those gifts from the self-righteous.
Self-Righteousness thrives on false comparisons.
I talked some about comparisons last fall, but I want to mention comparisons in a different context today. Self-righteousness loves to make comparisons; the Pharisee in the Temple is a perfect example of this – God, I thank you that I am not like other people. The reality is, the Pharisee might have been a better person in some ways than the tax collector, but so what? The point is not to be better than other people; that is a false comparison. The true comparison is this – how do I compare to Jesus? It’s not hard to find someone to whom we can feel spiritually superior, whether or not we really are. And plenty of church people over the years have made that comparison to others, so in some cases, the reputation of churches as being self-righteous is well-deserved, isn’t it?
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a church I served as Student Minister back in the 70s, Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Bethel is an African-American congregation, which was a very interesting experience for me. Early in my ministry there I was standing in a room behind the sanctuary looking at a picture. It was the traditional Head-of-Christ picture that we see in many churches, except it was an African-American Jesus. As I was standing there, just looking at the picture, one of the ladies of the church walked by and, without stopping, said, yeah, that’s not right, but neither is the one at your church.
I found that to be both funny and true, as the reality is that we can easily have the tendency to remake Jesus in our image, rather than remaking ourselves in his.
The comparison we ought to be making is not how we measure up to other people, or how they measure up to us, but how we measure up to Jesus.