6 “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.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-4 NRSV)
In College, I had a T-shirt that read “pray” across the top with an image of a young man wearing jeans with holes in the knees, indicating his persistence in prayer. Being the good not so mature Christian I was at the time who was also into fashion, I decided to make a statement with my clothes. One day I put that T-shirt on along with a pair of jeans with the holes in the knees. I strutted proudly across campus to the cafeteria, basking in the glory of the looks I received along the way.
Thinking back, those looks were probably not due to my fashion sense. I was practicing my piety before others. Boldly pointing out what I wanted others to think I was practicing.
There is a fine line between practicing our piety before others and in secret. Jesus tells us to let our light shine for all to see, so that seeing our good works, they might believe in God. What are those good works but acts of piety or righteousness.
In Matthew 6:1, Jesus urges us to be conscious of practicing our righteousness before others. The Bible Greek word here is: Dikaiosune, which means, integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting. It is how we live our lives. They values by which we live. The actions we make. It is this that Jesus instructs us to do in secret, hidden away from view of others.
Yet, if we keep it hidden from others, how will they know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus says we should be conscious of practicing our righteousness, or piety for others. This means the actions we take to let our light shine. Others do not need to see the hours we spend in prayer. They see the result. We do not need to tell others how much we read our Bibles, we share with them the result.
What then do we do with Ash Wednesday? Historically, Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the sermon of Lent, a season of repentance. As part of Ash Wednesday, we outwardly mark the symbol of a cross on our foreheads with ashes. I often struggle with what others think when then see the ashes on my forehead. Am I showing off? Does this constitute practicing my piety before others?
The ashes are an outward symbol of our hidden righteousness. Others do not see our internal struggle of repentance. They do not hear the many times we beat ourselves up. They do not bear the guilt we carry. These ashes are a way to let our light shine. They convey that God has granted us grace. They are evidence of the hidden repentance.