“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1, NASB95)
Why do we do the things we do? How do we choose our words? When do we do the things of righteousness, and when don’t we? What are those things anyway? Where is the line between public witness and what Jesus called “practicing our righteousness before men?”
The verse we’re considering today is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In context, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of those who pray and give to the poor in a showboat kind of way. It is a reminder that God isn’t just concerned with what we do, but also why we do it.
There are many “practices of righteousness.” Public prayer, volunteering, any form of public ministry, and going to church are perhaps the easiest ones to identify. But in our Social Media fueled world, our lives have become more and more public whether we want them to or not. So, there are some “practices of righteousness” on display there as well. Or consider the Jesus gear we may choose to wear, the t-shirts, bumper stickers, and wrist bands. Those could also be called “practices of righteousness.” None of these things are wrong in and of themselves. They can, however, be misused in the same way as Jesus’ examples in Matthew 6:1-6.
It is here that we must ask the Holy Spirit to clear our vision, to reveal some truth about ourselves. I’m certain that the hypocrites in Jesus’ teaching felt right and good about what they were doing—rationalizing its value and importance in some way. We do the same thing and are often blinded by our own hypocrisy and twisted motives.
So, how can we examine ourselves in this? Perhaps these questions may help. Why am I doing this? Whatever “this” is. How are my words or actions, or posts being received? Do my actions damage the value or dignity of another? Am I representing Christ or myself or my cause?
Let’s apply those questions to Jesus’ example of giving to the poor. Jesus taught, “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2, NASB95) Let’s paint the scene with more modern colors. Let’s say that I walk into one of the areas where the homeless and poor live. My intentions are to give them money, clothes, or food. But before I go, I also make sure that the local TV stations and newspapers know the date and time of my visit. What’s wrong with that?
Why am I really doing this? Is it to provide help for the poor or to gain some notoriety from the press? I can rationalize my actions. After all, people may see me and follow my excellent example. How are my actions being received? Probably good. Do my actions damage the value and dignity of another? Most decidedly, yes, they do. In this scenario, my actions and the invited press draw a spotlight not only on myself but on the poor and homeless, making them objects of pity. Am I representing Christ or myself or my cause? That’s harder to determine, but because the press is there, who is really getting the glory?
In no way am I saying to stop doing the practices of righteousness listed above. But I am challenging all of us who follow Christ to examine ourselves and our motives in these things. By the way, the list of those practices is far longer than the few listed above. Paul summarized it this way, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:17, NASB95)