Hypocrisy, Ash Wednesday, and the Gospel

So I need to follow up on what I said in my recent Ash Wednesday homily. I received a few questions from friends, and I’m just assuming that there are likely more folks out there who didn’t understand me or had lingering questions. And let me just say at the outset that I really am grateful for the opportunity to talk about it more. I really appreciate it when folks write me privately, and I’m happy to correspond that way. But hopefully this will be helpful to others as well. It really was an important point, and it’s really no trouble to repeat it again.

The particular questions I’ve received a couple of times center around this paragraph:

This is why we here at Trinity do not walk out of this building with ashes on our foreheads. There are extra tissue boxes scattered around the narthex so that you may wash your face and go out in public and not cancel out the prayers you have offered in here. The millions of Christians that go out in public with ashes on their foreheads are doing something that God hates and they are asking God not to listen to their prayers. Many of them do it ignorantly, having been deceived by their pastors who do not actually teach them the Word of God or how to actually be free of their sins but rather perform superstitious ceremonies to falsely comfort them as they meander their way to Hell. The same thing goes for announcing your fast on social media. Jesus says, do not be like the hypocrites.

Now this paragraph follows on quotations from Isaiah 1 and Matthew 6 about hypocrisy, and so I need to retrace my steps to make the connections clear between the two passages. Isaiah is talking about one particular form of hypocrisy, which is doing what God says to do with impudent hearts. God says to stop offering sacrifices and lifting hands in prayer, because the Israelites don’t really mean it. And the reason God knows they don’t really mean it is because they are living double lives. They sleep around and sing in the choir; they lie, steal, and murder and then come say their prayers. God says He hates it. It’s an abomination to Him. He won’t listen when they pray. In fact, He goes so far as to say that He didn’t command them to do any of those things! Just imagine the emails Isaiah got after that message. Um… but actually Isaiah, you are not technically correct, God did command us to offer sacrifices and feast days and lift our hands in prayer. So you might want to tone it down next time… I’m afraid you’re losing your audience when you overstate things like that…

Now fast forward to Matthew 6. Jesus says, do not be like the hypocrites… they already have their reward. They pray to be seen by men, they blow trumpets while they give alms, they disfigure their faces so everyone knows they gave up Facebook for Lent, they pray on street corners with megaphones. Now, Jesus does a number of things in this diatribe that need to be followed closely. He is not merely addressing soft-hearted and well-meaning folks who were saying sincere prayers on street corners and didn’t realize that actually wasn’t a good testimony — though that is certainly one application. No, Jesus says that the people who do these things already have their reward. What does that mean? It means God isn’t listening to them. Their reward is the kudos they get from their friends. God doesn’t care that they didn’t eat breakfast or lunch; He doesn’t give a damn that they gave up coffee or cheese balls or Xbox for Lent. They already have their reward. Their prayers are bouncing off the ceiling, getting lost in cyberspace. Why? Because God hates that kind of hypocrisy. Why does He hate it? Not because they are soft-hearted, well-meaning people. He hates it because it isn’t well-meaning at all. It’s impudent. It’s defiant. It’s rebellious. The kind of people who lead churches, families, and communities to do that kind of thing are already neck deep in hard-hearted confusion and creating more of it in the hearts of their people.

There are at least two things to notice here. One is that Jesus isn’t buying what the people say or think they are doing. This is something that parents have to learn to do with their children and pastors/elders need to learn to do with their sheep. People frequently don’t realize what they’re doing and that doesn’t get them off the hook. They frequently think they are doing the opposite of what they are actually doing. So if you ask your son, ‘how is your relationship with Jesus going?’ And he says good, and then you breathe a sigh of relief and go back to minding your own business until next year when you’ll ask that question again, you have not taken care to make sure your son is growing up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. You can’t tell Jesus on the Last Day, well I asked him and he said good! Likewise, the young man who tells his pastor that he’s doing really great spiritually and smoking pot on the weekends. The pastor doesn’t smile and pat the fellow on the back and tell him to keep up the good work. Likewise, when people are busy disobeying Jesus, flaunting their pieties, when you raise concerns with them and they soberly explain in hushed tones that they most certainly are not doing it to be seen by men at all, it won’t do to sigh in relief and go back to sermon preparation. Jesus knows that some of those people praying on street corners and disfiguring their faces are just doing what everyone else seems to be doing and they *think* they’re doing something good. But Jesus says, no, no they’re not. You can be a hypocrite even when you don’t mean to be. And hypocrisy is like gangrene. It doesn’t just get better.

So Jesus is addressing the same kind of hypocrisy that Isaiah addressed, and if anything, Jesus’ condemnation is wider, broader, even more universal. Isaiah condemned empty shows of religiosity that God had actually commanded, and Jesus is saying not to be like the hypocrites at all, ever — who do things to get earthly kudos. He gives examples of hypocrisy in prayer and fasting, but the application is actually broader. Don’t be like them. They already have their reward. It’s an abomination. God hates it. And this is related to the second thing: Jesus is universally condemning practices that surely have exceptions. And He heartily does it elsewhere as well: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (e.g. Mt. 23:13). But what about the good Pharisees? What about Nicodemus? What about all the good scribes? All the good scribes and Pharisees knew Jesus was right.

Or, what about public days of fasting and prayer for a city or a nation? What about Nineveh? Is Jesus condemning any and all signs or symbols of piety and repentance? Is a sign outside a church building blowing a trumpet on a street corner? Is a pro-life rally or a Psalm sing or open air preaching in a public square praying and giving alms in order to be seen by men? No, not in our day, because there really are very few cultural kudos you can get for any of those public displays. I’m certainly willing to grant that it’s possible to turn those sorts of things into showy displays, but the battle lines are drawn so clearly in our culture today that you’re choosing to be maligned and rejected more than anything. Likewise, if all the evangelical and Reformed churches in North America banded together for a day of fasting and prayer for our national sins of abortion, fornication, and sodomy, and our Church leaders recommended that faithful believers wear black for the day as a sign of repentance to God, I would have no problem showing solidarity for that purpose for that day. The reason that would be fine and good is because the terms have been defined and would require a significant portion of the population to count the cost of being associated with Jerry Falwell, Douglas Wilson, and Jesus Christ. And the consequences would be significant. And you better believe there would be a bunch of guys at the Gospel Coalition wringing their hands nervously, announcing that they’re not exactly against the whole thing but they’re just not sure this is the right time for it. Ah, gotcha. Not quite ready to repent.

And this brings us back to Ash Wednesday. I believe that there have been times and places where the season of Lent has been used faithfully by true saints who love Christ and His Word, and used the annual season to call upon God in all sincerity for the grace of repentance, to renew their commitment to walk in humility and holiness, and to reach out to the lost in acts of mercy and evangelism. And it is for that reason, we have continued to have a private Ash Wednesday service at Trinity. Nevertheless, in the same way that the Pharisees descended from faithful men like Ezra and Nehemiah but eventually became a stinking mess, I believe Ash Wednesday (and Lent) has publicly/culturally become something similar. There are still good things there (as with the Pharisees), but they have become popularly and culturally coopted by high handed hypocrisy. The fact that the leading liturgical churches in the West (Church of England, Episcopal, mainline Lutheran, Roman Catholic, etc.) are so chalk full of celebrations of homosexuality, fornication, abortion, and government enforced secularism is an abomination. I know that there are wonderful exceptions in every denomination. Praise God for your great aunt Louise who loves Jesus in some episcopal homo-shrine in Tampa. Happy to grant that she really means to repent of her sins and follow Jesus when she walks out of the homo-shrine with her ashen cross on her forehead. But here’s the thing: I know there were well-meaning Christian women with pink hats walking around at the women’s march a few months back, but it must be said they do not understand in the least what is going on in the world around them. As some wise woman in the south might say, God bless her heart.

In other words, what Jesus calls us to is to actually take up our crosses and follow Him, not pretend to. He died for us not that we might have committee meetings about how to take up crosses, so that we all coordinate and lift at the same time and make sure it doesn’t hurt too much and nobody gets any splinters. No, He died so that we might leave father and mother behind, so that we might leave our respectability behind and follow Him. Taking up a real cross to follow Jesus is not respectable; it’s shameful. It stands out; it’s awkward and embarrassing. And that’s a big part of how you can tell whether you’re actually following Jesus or not. If you haven’t noticed, it’s pretty trendy to wear ashen crosses out and about on Ash Wednesday. If it actually meant repentance to the watching world, you better believe people wearing them wouldn’t be served in certain restaurants, certain businesses would be boycotted, some people would lose their jobs, and there would be protests in the streets.

In other words, if it actually meant repentance, it would actually take courage. It would be like Neil Gorsuch looking one of those leftists in the eyes during the confirmation hearings and saying, “Human life begins at conception because the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ said so, and we are therefore duty bound to protect it.” Just imagine the shrieks. And if you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing like that kind of reaction to people walking around with ash on their foreheads. This is why, “The millions of Christians that go out in public with ashes on their foreheads are doing something that God hates and they are asking God not to listen to their prayers. Many of them do it ignorantly, having been deceived by their pastors who do not actually teach them the Word of God or how to actually be free of their sins but rather perform superstitious ceremonies to falsely comfort them as they meander their way to Hell.”

So if you haven’t noticed, God bless your heart.

  1. Sue M. April 3

    You are mistaken if you believe that only mainline Christian liturgical churches are the only ones who observe Ash Wednesday with imposition of ashes and the penitential season of Lent. Missouri Synod Lutherans do, as do theologically conservative Anglican denominations, the North American Lutheran Church, and many congregations in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Their are no doubt others, but these are the ones with which I am familiar. Ashes on one’s forehead can even be an opportunity to witness. It happened to me after I attended an Ash Wednesday service over my lunch hour. Upon returning to work, a co-worker who immigrated from China asked me why I had “dirt” on my forehead and offered to wipe it off. I had the chance to explain what the “dirt” was, what it signified, and a discussion of Christ’s sacrifice for all of us.

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