Based on the Gospel lection for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Here’s the question I want you to ponder upon today (or to return to throughout the Lenten season): Is pretending always a bad thing? Think about that for a moment and let that kind of remain in the background as we consider Jesus’ words this day. Is pretending always a bad thing?
Have you ever found yourself really wishing you could use a proverbial Family Feud ‘X’ whenever you see someone say something or do something with disguised motives? Perhaps you have a really good “Nonsense Radar” or something of the kind. You know what I would really like to do? I would like to have an endless supply of batteries and carry around with me one of those buzzers from the board game ‘Taboo!’ so that whenever I encountered someone being fake or pretending, I could push the button and say, “Quit that pretentious nonsense!”
But what I think would happen if I could use the Family Feud ‘X’ or the buzzer from ‘Taboo!’ would be that I would discover the joke is on me as much as it is on everyone else. Jesus would go on to say in this beloved sermon delivered on a mountain that we will be judged by the same standard which we use to judge others. If I’m brutally honest with myself I think I’d discover that the buzzer would be used as much on me as anyone else.
What is it about hypocrisy that sets Jesus off so badly? The same thing that makes us sick to our stomach when we encounter it (particularly in others or whenever we are the victim of it) – just how ‘fake’ it all is. Hypocrisy is counted among the top reasons that some people say they will never take part in a church – too many hypocrites! Too much “play-acting” and pretending to do the right thing while not really seeking to be transformed on the inside through the process. And that is the real difference. I think we would all agree, in theory, that the goal of following Christ is to grow in such a way that what we do on the outside matches who we are on the inside and that both inside and out, we are focused on the God who sees as much what we do when no one is looking as what we do when everyone is looking.
Jesus brings up three practices of piety – fasting, praying, alms-giving – and doesn’t really exhort us to do these things. Rather, he assumes that we will do these things. I’m convicted of this reality – that we are caught up in a livelihood of consumerism, busy-ness, and hoarding up treasures to such a degree that it is a challenge to actually even do the things that Jesus assumes we will do – fast, pray, and give. But Jesus’ message is less on the action, as that is a given, and more on the manner in which the action is done. That is, what matters is the motive. And that brings me back to the question asked at the beginning – Is pretending always a bad thing? Now our initial reaction may be to think, “Of course all pretention is bad! All pretending is really fake!” But to be a little bit contrary, I’d like to suggest, “Not necessarily!” Please don’t mistake this as a defense of hypocrisy, but do hear me saying that I believe that not all pretending is hypocritical. C. S. Lewis has a chapter in his classic work Mere Christianity devoted to this very idea, entitled ‘Let’s Pretend.’ Lewis wrote, “Even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing.”
What matters, again, is the motive. Who is your audience? NOT IF, BUT WHEN you practice these disciplines – fasting, praying, giving – what end are you seeking? Theologian Douglas Hare says it this way: “The practitioner who pretends to be seeking to glorify God but in fact is intent only on seeking self-glory is a hypocrite.” What matters is motive!
But here is where the good form of pretending comes into play; when it, as Lewis put it, leads up to the real thing. He would go on and say, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.”
I think we would all agree that at times we find it difficult to obey the commandment of Jesus – “Love your neighbor” – particularly when our neighbor hasn’t been very lovable or we sense in them a great deal of false motives, or that hypocritical pretending that we find so repugnant. In those moments we have essentially three options – 1. We can acknowledge our own negative feelings toward them and ignore or display hurtful behavior toward them (if we take that course, the good thing is that the outer expressions and inner feelings match; that bad thing is that match will only lead to our own decay and destruction); 2. We can save face and pretend to love them by extending proverbial olive branches but be seething in anger and hatred on the inside and find other, more subversive ways to bring harm upon them by talking about them behind their backs or whatever (if we take that course, the bad thing is, to put it bluntly, we are being hypocrites – the outside doesn’t match the inside in any way whatsoever; nor is there a goal for them to ever match); or 3. We can admit in humble, private prayer, that we have a hard time loving that person but that we will open ourselves as a conduit through which God’s love will be poured out upon them through our very own actions. Let’s be honest…this is pretension. But, it is pretension of a different kind. It doesn’t secretly wish the demise of the one we find unlovable. It only wishes good upon them and transformation of ourselves. And herein we find the beauty of grace – that through good pretension we find ourselves transformed by this remarkable God who took on our flesh to transform it. If we take this course, we will discover that even if our inside and outside don’t match for the time being, one day they will, for we are allowing God’s grace to transform us.
In closing, it is what Lewis called our action of “dressing up as Christ.” He says about the Lord’s prayer, which begins with the phrase ‘Our Father’:
If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a [child] of God. You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it…
You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into reality…you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules…The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.
That “part that is still tin” is part of why we use these ashes. They are a reminder of our mortality; that we all live on the edge of our own demise; that an old natural self with all its death and destruction tries to rear its ugly head. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; but that Life, real Life, as we shall come to see at the end of this journey has an even more final word. But until then, let’s pretend, in the good way – let us dress up as Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, the place of the cross.