Be Careful When Practicing Righteousness – Matthew 6:1

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 (almsgiving, 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 almsgiving 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, almsgiving, 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 almsgiving 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?

14 thoughts on “Be Careful When Practicing Righteousness – Matthew 6:1

  1. I like how Paul states that being righteous is a status we have before God. As sons and daughters of God, He has declared us righteous and therefore we out to act that way as that is what God has called us to do. When people do acts of righteousness with the wrong intentions, what they are trying to do is to draw attention to themselves. This is wrong as by doing acts of righteousness we are to draw others to God. McKnight does not really touch on the topic of how people misuse doing righteousness, but rather looks at the other part of the verse of making your enemies your neighbors. I think this can apply here as well as your neighbor may be someone who is trying to be righteous for their own benefit. This may drive you crazy because God has called us not to do that, but he has also called us to love them. We should bring those that are hard to love the closest to us, as this is a reflection of what Christ did for us.

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    • I think you have a very good point. We are born into sin, but as followers of God we are supposed to seek his righteousness in everything we do. The idea of people doing righteous things with the wrong intentions makes me think of something like say you see a guy that is wanted for murder on tv and your guys paths happen to cross later on, it is not okay to kill that man. For one God says thou shall not kill and two that would be an act of having a good idea of removing that problem but obviously taking it to the extreme of doing something that is the wrong intentions of how to handle the situation.

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  2. Jesus tells the disciples to pay close attention to what he is saying so that they will not make the same mistakes as the Pharisees were making. The Pharisees had a tendency to do their religious deeds in public, making sure that everyone could see. Even today, there are many people who are like the Pharisees in that they do their religious deeds for the public to see. You mention the examples of a politician praying or a business owner donating to charity, I can also think another example. Many athletes will thank God in their post game interviews to try and display that they have good character off the field. Many times this seems as though it is just them saying it to try and look good; because way too often those same players are caught doing things that they probably should not be doing. Jesus tells us that if we do our good deeds in private, that we will be rewarded by God! That sounds like a much better reward than appearing to be good on this earth.

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  3. “Jesus words drive his followers to see that they are to seek pleasure of God and not the approval of others”(McKnight, 151). As humans we seek the approval others in that they may give us what we want to hear, but God he wont give us what we want to hear. God gives us what is right . Jesus gives us a warning. a warning to be careful in that, our relationship with him and our worship should not be a public affair. its not for the world to see and judge but for God himself. a time to be in his presence. he wants us to ask ourselves when we do things in public, are we doing this for ourselves or for the glory of God? (McKnight, 153).

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  4. Sometimes people confuse spreading Gods word with boasting about their relationship with God. Although it is witness to do good in God’s name it is even more important to do these practices in private. If you only pray when other people are around, what does that say about your belief in the power of prayer. If you only share verses of the Bible on social media but do not take to reading the scripture in private and meditate on it, is it really transforming your heart?

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    • Heather, I really like the way that you stated that people can confuse sharing the message of God’s Word with boasting about our relationships with God. I had never really thought about this idea before this article and reading your comment. I did not realize that some people could interpret one’s sharing of God’s word as boasting about their relationship with God. I wonder if this is more of an issue within the person sharing God’s word or if it is an issue within the person hearing the person share? I feel like it might be something that the listener could be feeling convicted in their relationship with God and not wanting to feel like they have a worse relationship with God than someone else.
      I also like how you mentioned how it is important to pray in private and not to just pray because other people are around. This goes back to the blog post about Matthew 6:2-4 and how it is important to check our intentions whenever we are doing something. We should never do things because we want to look better or “holier” in front of others. We should be doing things to glorify God in everything we do. Our intentions can make our actions into issues. I love the question you ended your post with about living out what we are posting on social media. We must practice and meditate on the verses that we might be posting and living them out. We cannot simply be just posting verses and then living a separate life.

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  5. To answer the question, I think people announce these things that they do because they are afraid they are not going to get any of the attention or credit. That is what it’s all about today, people either want the attention of a certain crowd so they do something in line with that crowd. Or they will give a great deal of money to something, not because they want to help but because they to seen as good or they want the credit that they deserve. To the passage in Matthew 6, about doing acts of righteousness, I think that the times may have changed, but the motives for the most part have not. The Jewish, were a general exception, overall though people gave to make their own standing higher, or boost their own self esteem or reputation. In either case it was mostly about themselves. This is want Jesus is warning his disciples about, Doing acts or righteousness for yourself defeats the purpose of them all together. So you should do these acts if you feel the need to help the people in need, not to help yourself in anyway. Any selfish motivation is a bad one.

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  6. So I think this all comes back to motivation again. This is another situation where Jesus is addressing the heart of the man in this situation. Not the outward acts that he is doing. So acts of righteousness are okay, if your heart Is focused on the right thing. I honestly think that people make a public announcement about there good deeds so that 1) They can feel better about themselves 2) because they want the focus, glory, and attention on them. Jesus even warns the pharisees to be careful for they did not know what they were. McKnight makes the point that righteous was not even the word that we think of it to be today. That it was more literal (McKnight, 152). The point in all of this is to be unnoticeable and humbled.

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  7. Most of people today want an instant gratification. When we as Christians feel led to doing an act of righteousness some do it out of selfishness. How can I become the best Christian there is? Then others, do it genuinely and as if it’s the Lord telling them. Who am I to judge though, God knows the heart, I just know the person. However, if your heart is in the right place, like genuinely, you are on fire for God, whenever you do an act of righteousness, it will be sincere.

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  8. McKnight notes that we are to seek the pleasure of God and not the approval of others (pg 151). When people make public announcements of their goods deeds or actions, those people are clearly seeking out the approval of others. Ultimately this is a heart issue, as announcing your good doings so that the masses can see is seeking to bring the glory to yourself rather than to God. You can give God glory in public and in private, but when public glory to God becomes a working to bring glory and attention also to yourself, it becomes an issue. Those that claim to be Christian need to analyze how they give and pray in public, so as not to bring attention to themselves, but to put others’ attention on God.

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  9. Our motive is what matters to Jesus. When we complete an act of righteousness we can ask ourselves if we were focused on God or ourselves. The answer to that question will show where our heart is. When asked the questions, “Why do people make public announcements of their good deeds? What are they hoping to accomplish?” it makes you wonder where the individual’s heart is when they are doing acts of righteousness. I see videos all the time that have gone viral on social media of people recording their good deeds and then posting them. Of course it is nice to see that there are still good people out there, but it makes me wonder why they felt the need to record it and not just keep the deed private. Sometimes people want every one to know what they did and think of them as a good person. McKnight mentions that central issue that provokes Jesus is an act done to be noticed as pious and to gain attention and a reputation (pg. 195). Just like Mark 6:18 states, ‘..but only to your father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.’

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