In the next section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses the practice of righteousness. He told his disciples their righteousness must exceed the Pharisees (5:20) and they must be perfect like their father in heaven is perfect. He has given six examples of how the Law ought to be extended to thoughts, attitudes, and motivations. One cannot ‘be righteous” by not murdering, for example, one must control their internal anger.
Starting in Matthew 6, Jesus will begin to teaching on “doing righteousness.” In this section he will deal with three practices (alms giving, prayer and fasting). Each of these are common practices in Second Temple Judaism and Jesus assumes his disciples are already doing these things. The Second Temple Jewish novel Tobit includes these three disciplines, “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is alms giving with righteousness” (Tobit 12:8). Although a later Christian work, Testament of Jacob specifically mentions these three acts of righteousness: “Much prayer and fasting are necessary, likewise alms freely given out of mercy and compassion.” Jesus draws a contrast between his disciples and the “hypocrites” by instructing his followers to examine their motivations.
“Doing Righteousness” is a major distinction between (later, Pauline) Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. Christianity focused on what a person is in Christ, their status before God. For Paul, the one who is in Christ has been declared righteous by faith (Romans 3:21-26, for example) and the in Christ person is adopted into God’s family (Gal 3:23-29). Since we are children of God, Paul would say, we ought to behave in a way which honors our Father in Heaven. Righteousness is a (legal) status we have before God.
In Second Temple Judaism, righteousness is something one does. E. P. Sanders described Judaism is a religion of “things done” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 213). It was not simply a case of going up to the Temple and performing some religious act of piety like a ritual washing or sacrifice. The shema demanded love of God and love for one’s neighbor. Love for one’s neighbor or love for a stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions. Do not slander others; do not oppress immigrants; do not rob (Sanders 23). If one’s heart is right before God then it is natural to care for the poor. Alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious to all a person is unrighteous.
Jesus says there is danger in doing deeds of righteousness. The ESV’s “beware” and the NIV “be careful” attempt to catch the meaning of προσέχω (prosechō). The verb has the sense of being alert to something, or to “be concerned about.” In the LXX the verb is sometimes used to warn Israel to “take care” to keep the statutes of the Law (Deuteronomy 4:9) or saying close attention to a teacher’s words (Sirach 16:24). Perhaps something like, “this is very important to pay close attention to it).
What the disciple is to pay close attention to is how they “do righteousness.” In the context of the next 18 verses Jesus has in mind three spiritual disciplines, alms giving, prayer and fasting, but his teaching here can be expanded to any spiritual discipline. Like his teaching on keeping the Law (5:21-48), Jesus’s concern is on the internal motivation for going good, spiritual things.
It seems obvious a person can do a public act of religious devotion out of selfish motives. A politician who prays in public in order to impress his Christian constituency or a business person who gives generously to charity to avoid paying taxes or to receive good publicity immediately come to mind. Before looking at the issue of alms giving in detail, I want to focus on this idea of motivation for doing good religious practices. Why to people make public announcements of their good deeds? What are they hoping to accomplish?