14. God cares no more for the true acts of piety than the empty if no one is made free.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
In his 95 Theses, Martin Luther takes on the practice of selling indulgences and the faulty theology behind them. He didn’t think we could buy our way into forgiveness, but that we needed to receive it through repentance. Ultimately, our being redeemed by God has to be about a true transformation inside of ourselves.
I don’t disagree with this argument at all.
But maybe this puts a lot of pressure on the personal thing going on inside of us. It sometimes feels like we don’t leave any room for God in the equation.
Maybe our seeking God’s mercy isn’t the point of faith in itself. And maybe the act of piety, found in a piece of paper or in the inner work of repentance isn’t the point. It seems to me that maybe the point is liberation.
For as much as Protestants rejected Catholic piety, they sure liked making their own. Now both Catholics and Protestants alike surround themselves with personal acts of devotion and piety. Some of it’s about the internal and some of it’s not.
It’s abstinence from indulging or it’s the Protestant work ethic.
Or wearing crosses in public or saying grace at home.
Maybe getting all worked up about red Starbucks cups and saying Merry Christmas to everybody.
Or defining salvation by saying the Jesus prayer or accepting Jesus into your heart at an altar call.
We bow and cross ourselves and do all these Jesusy things; even the way we say his name can be a piety: Je-SUS!
Whether its for show or personal devotion, the question isn’t really about our hearts. Not really. Not if God tells us that this junk doesn’t really matter. Or if we’re told by Jesus that loving him means feeding his sheep.
In articulating the internal dynamic of repentance in opposition to the corporate experience of the church, Luther gave us an image of freedom which was personal and spiritual. But it neglected the corporate and the physical.
In other words, Christ can set you free and yet you can still be in prison. And not just in a jail cell.
We can be imprisoned to hate, economic insecurity, war, famine, cultural blindness, gendered inequality, neighborhood, labor, bigotry. And our jailers can be our neighbors, friends, parents, teachers, governors, and police.
We can be free in Christ and imprisoned by Christians who have been freed in Christ.
Individualism and Personal Religion isn’t freedom if we’re under the tyranny of another’s personal religion.
The complexity of faith: that we have to wrestle with each other’s beliefs: can be real pain in the ass. So the only way I can untangle the good stuff from the junk is by asking a fairly simple question about any faith.
Does my faith make us better?
And not with the qualification of “well, if everybody had my faith then we’d all be better.” That’s total BS. That’s like evaluating your ability to coach basketball by saying “well, we’ll evaluate it when everybody gets a hoop for their garage.”
That personal faith of yours; does it make us better? Your sincerely held belief; does it free the imprisoned? Does it reveal the God of presence who liberated the people from Egypt? How about the Christ who liberated us from sin? Are all our people free because of your mustard seed of faith?
It isn’t freedom to live with mass incarceration and a record wage gap. We aren’t free when our neighbors are hungry and lack proper healthcare. I’m not free as long as my brothers and sisters are not.
Jesus never said your personal freedom is your #1 pursuit. He never told any of us to only look out for #1.
What he said is to make God our #1. And #2 is identical to #1: love your neighbor as yourself. Until God sees #2 is true, chances are God doesn’t delight in our offerings.
[This is Thesis #14 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]