Piety. It’s not a word you often hear theologians throw around — and certainly not liberal Presbyterian ones. And yet, I was recently reading Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator by Douglas Ottati, and the thing that struck me was how often he used the word piety and just how comfortable he was with it. It’s not something you expect these days.
The word has become synonymous hypocrite and sanctimonious — and if we were to look the word up, we might find a picture of Tartuffe or a politician who thunders family values but spends the night with someone else’s spouse. Most of us would likely use it in a sentence more or less like this: “Look at him! He is so pious!” or “Don’t be so pious.”
This is a huge shame. The wordy piety comes from the Latin word pietas, which meant a duty toward your family, your neighbor, your country, and the gods. It was one of the chief virtues of the ancient Romans. The one who possessed pietas “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect,” as one classical scholar described it.
Jesus’s problem is not with piety as such, but with piety done ostentatiously for the public image — and not to glorify God.
The Romans showed respect and admiration for the emperor Antonius by bestowing upon him the name Pious — because he so faithfully discharged his filial duty toward his adoptive father, the emperor Hadrian, and the Roman state. The same word is also the root of the word pity — which originally did not carry with it a condescending tone, but meant “concerned, loving compassion.” Pieta — the stunningly beautiful sculpture of Michelangelo — is an image of just that: loving, tender, concerned pity Mary must have felt when she held her son’s body for the last time.
During Ash Wednesday, most of us attending lectionary-based churches will listen to the Gospel passage where Jesus talks about piety. But it’s interesting to note that neither Jesus nor the Bible share our negative sentiment of that word. They commend piety, when done properly. “Beware of practicing your piety so that others might see you,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. His problem is not with piety as such, but with piety done ostentatiously for the public image — and not to glorify God.
As Brian Gerrish wrote in his book Grace and Gratitude, John Calvin saw perfect piety as an attribute of God. The knowledge of God created in us the predisposition of piety, a desire to cleave to God and God alone. For the reformer, the summation of all Christian piety was found in the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper:
“In this sacrament . . . the Lord recalls the great bounty of his goodness to our memory and stirs us to acknowledge it; and at the same time he admonishes us not to be ungrateful for such lavish liberality, but rather to proclaim it with fitting praises and to celebrate it by giving thanks. We see that this sacred bread of the Lord’s Supper is spiritual food, sweet and delicious to those whom it shows that Christ is their life.”
In this Lenten season, I would like to suggest that we Christians reclaim once again not only the word, but also the practice of piety. The practice of pietas — a joyful and sweet fulfilling of our duty to God and to our fellow human beings because of what God has done freely, lavishly and lovingly for us in Jesus Christ.
Piety will thus not be an empty ritual, but a way of living — an attitude. It will be a predisposition of gratitude to God expressed in joyful thanksgiving to God and loving kindness to others. Practicing piety is how we fulfill the chief end of human life — which as Question 1 of the Westminster Catechism reminds us is to “ Glorify God and enjoy God fully forever!”
Perhaps in changing our attitude to piety and the practice of it, it might be helpful to draw on other meanings of the word. In my native Polish language, the expression “to do something piously” or “to do something with piety” entails a gentle, tender, loving devotion and dedication to the subject and the action.
Let us use these 40 days and 40 nights of Lent to reshape our hearts, minds, and lives by the virtue of piety.
That is exactly what we should try to take on this Lent season.
Let us hear the word of God proclaimed to us in the Gospels: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” And we do this by regularly attending worship and partaking in the sacrament of Holy Communion through and beyond Lent and by individual prayer — let us express our loving, tender thankfulness to God for what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. May this piety stir us to a greater pietas — when we reach out in gratitude to others with the same loving-kindness, tenderness, and gentleness God extends to us.
Instead of turning Lent into a season of drudgery and gloom or forgetting and loosing it altogether, let us use these 40 days and 40 nights to reshape our hearts, minds, and lives by the virtue of piety. Let our individual and common piety live out the great vocation of the Christian life, so aptly put by the last words of the 1847 Evangelical Catechism.
“Lord Jesus, for thee I live, for thee I suffer, for thee I die! Lord Jesus, thine will I be in life and in death! Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation! Amen!”
Blessed, joyful, and pious Lent.