Most Bible students are familiar with the Luke 18 account of the praying Pharisee. However, many apparently conclude that Jesus’ expressed problem with the Pharisee involved some form of hypocrisy on his part and not the fact that he made a public display of his piety, per se. How else could one read this story and still practice what many Christians do and actually consider it exemplary behavior.
A more careful look at the Luke 18 parable shows clearly that Jesus condemned the self exaltation which is inherent in all such pious displays. This, of course, is reinforced by the similar words of Jesus in Matthew 6 where he taught his disciples the so called Lord’s Prayer. Somehow, conveniently, many so called Christians simply ignored the clear warnings of Jesus about this road to self righteousness and prideful contempt of others and proudly display their piety for all to see and admire. Pretentious piety is such a common and accepted practice in Christianity that even the politicians have gotten into the act. When someone, claiming the qualifications to be the rule maker and instructor for the rest of us, wraps himself in the mantle of godly piety in justifying that claim, the similarity to the praying Pharisee is all the more pronounced.
I personally feel uncomfortable with any ostentatious religiously inspired activities in a public setting when practiced by people who feel superior to all others because of their religion. The sincerity of the people involved is not the issue for me. They may well be sincere in believing that this or that public activity honors God and is required by their doctrine. The real issue is the negative effect of engaging in public piety on the mindset of people practicing such. How can these avoid the heady feeling of self achieved righteousness and moral superiority which is inherent in their perceived need to publically declare their religious affiliation, thereby claiming acceptance for themselves and rejection for all others?
C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker and writer of the past century, noted that humility, while a recognized Christian virtue, is a very elusive one. As soon as we recognize our own humility, it evaporates in the sure knowledge that our humility makes us better than the proud. Thus it must ever be with those who see public piety as a requirement. Demonstrating our godliness by ritualistic practices which supposedly mark us as God’s favorites is unavoidably an act of self righteousness and never meaningful or even acceptable as a matter of common courtesy. In fact, by their very nature such attempts are prideful, spiteful, and therefore pointedly condemned by Christ.