Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
As Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount continues, if in chapter 5 He taught us what the Christian life is, in chapter 6 He begins by telling us how we ought to carry it out. It is vital to not only do what is right, but to do it in the right way. As in chapter 5, Jesus contrasted the letter of the old commandment with the heart of the new (“You have heard it said … But I say unto you”), now He contrasts good and bad practice (“When you do such and such, do not …”).
The three most prominent religious obligations in First Century Judaism were giving of alms, (or charity), prayer, and fasting. For each of these three practices Jesus once again undercuts the outward action to get to the heart motive underneath the religious activity. He does this by affirming the value of charity, prayer and fasting as religious duties, but expresses that they can be done wrongly or with the wrong motive. For all three He follows the pattern of first describing the bad practice, followed by an explanation of the good practice, and the special reward received for a right action done with a right heart.
The bad practices in this text are: Gaudy Giving, Pretentious Prayer, and Flamboyant Fasting. The reward for such showy displays of these righteous deeds is the mere earthly, temporal praise of others. The good practices are Clandestine Charity, Private Prayer, and Furtive Fasting. The good reward received for these disciplines done in secret are an exciting eternal reward received from the heavenly Father who sees all secret things.
Human beings are designed for good deeds. It’s part of God’s original creation that we love Him by loving others. But as a result of the fall, we have this natural bent to want to be noticed for our good deeds. We see this in children who say, “watch me,” as they attempt something new and in their mind, extravagant, in order to gain the attention of their parents. It is right to do good works, but it is wrong to do them in such a way that they are done to gain the attention of others. On Sunday we will examine Jesus’s three model examples of righteous deeds done to others (charity), to God (prayer) and to one’s self (fasting); He will teach us the right and wrong way to go about all three.