The word piety does kind of stick in the throat. What does it mean? Being pious for some can mean a holier-than-thou attitude that is off-putting at best and at worst is downright filled with spiritual pride. For others, being pious is deeply rooted in the history of the evangelical pietism of the Moravians, who influenced John Wesley and thus the whole evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century and on into our day. Most probably think of piety as some practical “spiritual disciplines” for the individual.
Chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel, the center of the famous Sermon on the Mount, is then instructive for our presumptions of what piety means and how to put it into practice in a number of interesting ways. First of all, notice the list of topics that our Lord chooses. Giving, prayer, fasting—so far, so normal in terms of what we would expect under the topic of piety—then money again, this time from a different angle, which is perhaps not so surprising given the preponderant difficulty that most humans have with money and possessions. But then Jesus finishes with a long section on anxiety or worry, which is not exactly a “spiritual discipline” as such, and in the middle of that is one of the more well-known statements in the Sermon on the Mount about seeking first the kingdom of God.
Second but more importantly still, notice the ongoing contrast that runs throughout this chapter. Over and over again, Jesus is telling His followers not to be “like them,” those who make a display of piety, but instead to be “like this,” those who give thought only to God as their audience. You can see this contrast in Matthew 6:1–2, where Jesus describes the extraordinary showy behavior of givers at the time and then tells His followers, “Sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” So don’t be like them. Instead, be like this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3).
You can see the same contrast when He teaches on prayer: “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:5). So don’t be like them. Instead, be like this: “When you pray, go into your room . . .” (Matt. 6:6).
We can see the same contrast in Jesus’ teaching on fasting: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites . . .” (Matt. 6:16). Instead, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face . . .” (Matt. 6:17). Don’t be like them; instead, be like this.