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)
So Jesus begins a new section of His Sermon by warning His followers not to make a production of their righteousness. This, just after he told them to “Be perfect.”
Is that fair, we ask. All that work and we don’t get to show it off?
I look at this warning and am aware of the irony of publishing my own meditations on the Sermon in public. That could come mighty close to “practicing my righteousness before others to be noticed by them.” It is very easy to cross the line between “I want to share this” into “Look at me doing this.” And I think that is what Jesus is warning us about doing.
Jesus speaks to our intentions here. If we’re going to make a show of our righteousness in public, why are we doing it? If we’re doing it in order to be noticed, God has no interest in that. “I’m good so that people will know that I am good!” That attitude does not fit in very well with what Jesus has already spoken about.
Also, Jesus is talking about us making a show of our righteousness. That is, our acting in accordance with divine law. There were those who loved to make a production of their religious observances back in Jesus’ day, and there are those who do it in our time. “Aren’t we good? Aren’t we righteous? Look at us holding our televised services every week without fail. Why we hardly take a week off, we’re so godly! And here’s this wonderful charity act we’re doing, getting it all on camera so you can see how much we really care!”
Oh, yes. Practicing our righteousness in front of others in order to be noticed remains with us.
Jesus says that God isn’t interested in rewarding that kind of behavior.
Why is that, we wonder? Even if it is in public with everyone watching and it really is righteous behavior, why would it matter to the Lord? Doesn’t He want us to do good at all times, to follow His laws?
Of course He does. And I have to believe that He does take pleasure in any Good Act, no matter how it is motivated.
But that’s not what Jesus says God is focusing on here. He doesn’t say that God would be displeased by righteous acts performed in public in order to show off before others. The Lord can make good of anything, after all. No, Jesus says that the Father will not reward such behavior.
What sort of rewards does he mean? Because we can all point to religious leaders who make a big show of their preaching and outreach who have racked up huge fortunes with their ministry industries. But I don’t think he’s talking about worldly rewards. I think Jesus is talking about all those rewards mentioned in the Beatitudes.
Inheriting the earth, being called the Sons and Daughters of God, holding the kingdom of heaven in our hands – those rewards are the ones I think Jesus is referring to.
And when you think about it, you start to realize that everything that Jesus commended in the Beatitudes doesn’t go over so well if you make a big production about it.
Is it possible to make a production of being “poor in spirit”? Surely we can tell the difference between someone going around contentedly saying “Poor me! I feel so distant from God right now!” and someone who suddenly bursts out “Help me! I’m so alone!” That second person is not making a big show of their need. Usually they’ve been keeping their desperation hidden until they could not contain it any more.
What about mourning? That is inevitably a public expression, isn’t it? People cannot go through a great loss without it being seen. But I think there is a big difference between the open shared grief in a community that suffers a loss and someone constantly going about in a full on mourning outfit and expounding at length about why they are dressed all in black.
Can peacemaking be done in public? Is it possible to be sensitive to the feelings and concerns of both parties, when you are making them conduct all the stages of reconciliation in public? Making a show of it all? What purpose is served in that, other than making a public display of the “Peacemaker’s” negotiation skills?
Mercy bestowed as a show piece: can we call that being merciful? We make a spectacle of the person receiving the grace of the reprieve or whatever doom was about to fall upon them. How is that merciful? A public puppet serving as a stage prop for someone to show off how magnanimous they are?
In following verses, Jesus will speak further to our impulse to make displays in public. But here at the beginning of the section, He just puts it simply: God is not interested in rewarding displays of righteousness that are done for the purpose of public attention. That does not mean that He does not recognize righteousness even when performed in folly. It just means He will not reward it.
It’s very easy for us to get caught up in the need for doing something “in public.” We talk a lot about being “open and above board” and “being transparent.” It is even possible for us to work ourselves into a mindset where we honestly believe that the public display is righteous in the very best sense.
But Jesus warns us, if it is done “before men to be noticed by them,” we’re starting from the wrong place. I suppose if there were absolutely no other option than the public display, God would take that into account. He knows that when immediate action is necessary, it might sometimes be “out in the open.” What He is speaking to, however, seems to be those occasions when we “set the stage” for a public display.
If we plan something for public attention, then the Lord already knows that any other “reward”, even from Him, would be superfluous to our hearts. We weren’t doing it to please God, we were doing it to please ourselves.
Doing right, being righteous, will always please God. But He doesn’t need production numbers to get His attention. In fact, He’d rather we did it without all the bells and whistles.