Public Piety

By Sherry Black

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

1 “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.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”


In our gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that our personal piety should be just that. Personal. Private. Seen and heard only by our Father; and our Father who sees in secret will reward us.

But it also got me thinking about those of us who have more public roles, who write or speak or pray in a more public forum. We need to be especially aware of our motives and witness. Do we point to Jesus, or to ourselves? Do we prioritize those in need, or our own needs?

As a hospital chaplain on the edge of the Bible Belt, I am honored to be able to lead a prayer over the intercom each morning. Staff, visitors, and patients have all expressed how much they appreciate this ministry. I begin with an address to God, and I move into a prayer for patients and families. I’ve developed a hospital “cycle of prayer” in which I pray for each department by turn. I then pray for our armed forces or emergency responders, and I close with a collect, generally one about healing from the Book of Common Prayer or a similar source. It’s truly not about me. I usually feel like the voice of the small wizard behind the curtain.

Still, as leaders in the Church we need to be careful with our public piety, whether in prayer vigils, public statements, support for causes — the list goes on. What are our motives? We read through James during Morning Prayer a few weeks ago and were reminded to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, and that true devotion is to care for the widows and orphans. Those would be good measures for our public personas. What is our direction? Is it outward, toward Jesus and toward the needs of others, or is it about our own agendas or opinions? Do we proclaim love, or are we acting in our own self-interest? I think it’s safe to say that self-righteousness is not a virtue. Instead, what is the fruit of our words and actions? As the saying goes, “May my words be gracious and tender today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for ten years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.

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