The pathology of piety

29 May

One of the classic insights of spiritual teachers, over many centuries and across all faiths, is to challenge what has been called spiritual blindness.
There is something about religious fervour which actually blinds us to what is evident to others.
Somehow, we just can’t see.

There are many examples of this in contemporary experience. Preachers proclaim liberation, but in a way that binds and blinds.
I recall as a student reading a phrase in Edward Thornton’s book about pastoral care: He said that he has ‘preached love with all the fury he could muster’.
Self-deception is surely a blight on us all. The psalmist asks to be freed from ‘hidden faults’ (Psalm 19).
In Luke 6, we find controversies over ‘the Sabbath’, which surely reflect the pathology of piety.

In the pathology of piety, we fail to see the wood from the trees. We fail to see that the point of some religious commitment, ritual or practice is the not that thing in itself. There is something greater, some purpose in it all, which is meant to be served. When the practice becomes an end in itself, piety has failed to bring us closer to God. Instead, it has blinded us. It has lost its way.

Luke presents together two stories in which Jesus is embroiled in debates about what is ‘lawful’ on the Sabbath.
First, Jesus’ followers are challenged because, while walking along, they pick heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat them. This is presumably regarded as ‘work’, and is not to be undertaken.
The second incident takes place in a synagogue—a place for teaching the law, the word and purpose of God for the people’s life and well-being.
Here, a man with a withered hand. It is his right hand, which was significant. This was the hand people used for eating, and for all other tasks except for when they went to the toilet. For that purpose, the left hand was used. So here is a man who has only a left hand to use, and is thus stigmatized already. His disability is not only physical. It is social and, for many people, also spiritual. It is a sign that he is a sinner.
Thus, the Pharisees are most interested to see whether or not Jesus, who already had a reputation as a healer, would indeed help such a person, in the synagogue, and on the sabbath.

Jesus challenges them head-on: in the first incident, he challenges the pettiness of the complaint, referring to an historic story of David celebrating in the temple, and using the offertory bread for this purpose. The implication is this: the gifts made to God, and those given by God, are for the purposes of God. These things are to be seen in the perspective of God’s purposes. Thus, Jesus claims to be ‘lord of the sabbath’. This is a very cryptic version of the story, but when coupled with the one that follows the point is clear. The sabbath is not an end in itself. Piety that centres on the sabbath alone misses the point. The sabbath is a gift of God, to bring people to know and enjoy God’s purposes, God’s good creation. It is not meant to alienate people from God.
So, in the second incident, Jesus clearly sets out the options: saving life, and doing good: are these not what is ‘lawful’ on the sabbath, rather than doing evil and destroying life?
Piety which focusses on sabbath ritual without meaning and without concern for people’s needs, is sick. To ignore the good you could do, for the sake of a ritual or cultic purpose alone, is not the way of God.
The Pharisees did not like this. They began already to plot against Jesus.

Luke tells this story here and it recurs as a theme through all his writing. It is there again and again in the stories in Acts. As the early communities of Christians confront new challenges in mission, they also encounter the issues of how their life-long religious practices are causing them grief. Peter is challenged to re-think his ideas of what is ‘unclean’. They are all confronted with a new sense of the Spirit’s inclusion of people they were brought up to consider outsiders.

It’s a deeply confronting challenge. The pathology of piety lurks within us all. But what can we do about it? Should we make no commitments at all? That seems impossible.
What can we do to avoid the distortions and divisiveness that so easily masquerades as strong faith?
I can only urge two things.
First, somehow we have to trust that the Spirit of live will enable us to see beyond our blindness. Humility is a great gift, to be sought earnestly. It may save us from many other things. Wisdom will enable us to see beyond fervour to love, acceptance and mutual growth in grace. We can but hope for such things!
Secondly, I think it is crucial to say that these gifts come to us through others, and often through those who are different from us, maybe our critics, or those whose experience has led them on a different pathway. They can help us to become more honest with ourselves, and save us from mistaking  our custom and pious practice for the purpose of God.

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