In the middle of last week, we entered the Season of Lent.
What are your associations with Lent? Is it a time for giving up chocolate, or alcohol, of meat, a time for spiritual self-discipline, for doing something which is good for the soul? Or maybe you feel that it is not really for the likes of us Presbyterians, that it is a tradition imported from elsewhere. But maybe you have a sense that this is a solemn season, a serious time of year. And if you do, you are probably not expecting to hear anything remotely comic in church.
To be honest, ‘remotely comic’ is the best I can offer. The Bible is rarely laugh-out-loud, hold-your-sides funny.
Here’s a little picture Jesus paints.
A wealthy person approaches a beggar. Quickly, he summons his personal trumpeter. Fanfare please. Everybody looks round. Here, beggar, the wealthy person says. I am bestowing upon you a tiny fraction of my immense wealth. How good I am being to you. See, all these people are impressed by my great generosity. Round of applause, please.
Maybe the disciples sniggered a bit. But comedy works best when it shows us something we recognise, but just a bit exaggerated.
Of course, no one really demands a fanfare when they give. But many do look for recognition. The disciples would have seen that. We’ve seen that too. There are many plaques to prove it.
Jesus then turns to another matter. He starts to talk about praying.
You’ve all seen them, he says, the people who make a great show of their prayers, who use many, many words, whose prayers are a great performance, who go on and on and on.
We’ve seen them too, the people who adopt prayerful poses, who blether on and on, using words that mean very little, who make a great show of their piety. It often feels like those who don’t are being judged as less holy, less spiritual, less likely to be listened to by God.
Not so, says Jesus. And to make the point, he teaches them how to pray. And we say that prayer every week.
Then he turns to another subject. He’s still talking about the expression of faith. He talks about fasting, caricaturing people who make a great show, who tear their clothes, who make themselves look utterly haggard. Fasting is not really part of our tradition, but it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see similar things going on. The people who look worn out doing good works. The people who let you know they are taking on great burdens for the church. It is a temptation all too easy for ministers, in particular, to fall into.
A couple of weeks ago, we thought about what holiness is. We heard how Jesus taught that it was really about how we live our everyday lives, about being generous, non-judgemental, going the second mile, loving our enemies. Here is more teaching on holiness, and this time it is a warning. Holiness is not ostentatious. Holiness is not being showy. Holiness is not being loud. Holiness has no room for pride. Holiness is quiet. It is anonymous. It is discreet. It is never about attracting attention, but it is always about doing God’s work, for God’s sake. If you are holy, and God calls us to be holy, wants us to be holy, expects us to be holy, we shouldn’t be trying to get people to look at us. Our practice of faith, our service in the world, should point only towards God.
Within the church, that’s a really obvious, uncontroversial thing to say. It is something we all know, thanks to Jesus. But it is also actually a really difficult message. We live in a society in which everyone and everything is vying for attention, all the time. We are surrounded by advertising, shouting buy me, buy me! Go and look round your house and see just how much you have which has been designed, not only for function, but to be attractive, to make you want it. And we know that many people in work are under increasing pressure to stand out, in order to gain promotion, or to attract new business, or even just to keep their job by proving over and over that they are valuable to their employer. This is what happens when competition infects every aspect of life. Everyone and everything is seeking attention.
And the church is no different. As members of the Kirk Session know, increasingly congregations are being pitted against one another in competition for ministers, which, we are told, are an increasingly scarce resource. Look at the Church of Scotland’s digital and print publications, from Life and Work to Facebook and Twitter, and you see that the tone is relentlessly self-congratulatory – look at us, how good we are, what valuable work we’re doing, how relevant we are to today’s society we are, despite what anyone else says. There is a fine, and frequently crossed line between good news and boastfulness.
So, while at first we might snigger with the disciples at the trumpets of the hypocrites, we very quickly see that we’re little different. We reason – why put in all this effort if no one notices?
That’s what Jesus warns against.
He says, be generous, but for the sake of the person you give to, not your own; pray faithfully, but keep it brief. Do not imagine that God pays more attention to longer, louder prayers; align your life to the will of God, just don’t make a great show about it. To lead faithful and faith-filled lives, we do no need public recognition. God will see, and that is enough.
But this still leaves us with a dilemma. A little later on, Jesus says this: What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops. We might think there’s a contradiction between these two teachings. How can we be both modest to the point of invisibility and be effective witnesses to Christ? Surely that requires that we seek attention.
The answer is by no means clear. It is a fine line that Jesus asks us to walk. We won’t always get it right, and we’ll probably often be accused, often unfairly, of getting it wrong. But true faith is never about self-promotion. Real holiness is never about gaining personal credit. It is always and only about the glory of God.
Let me offer this thought: we must not be seduced by the lure of success. If, in our life of faith we focus on success, we inevitably apply measures which do not come from the Gospels. Jesus was not interested in success. He didn’t count conversions. He didn’t tally up healings to show how effective he was. He was often more interested in being with the people society ignored than he was in influencing the influential. He completed his ministry, not to universal acclaim, but on a cross and in a tomb.
If success is our aim, we are working for something other than what Jesus worked for. We would be working, if we are honest, for ourselves. And we know that that’s not right. We work for Christ.