People who pray are righteous, right? People who give to people in need are good people, correct? We will be considered righteous if people see us fasting, worshipping in church every Sunday, reading the Bible regularly, and practicing all the spiritual disciplines, correct? According to Jesus, not necessarily:
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. Matthew 6:1 ESV
We have previously considered a deeper kind of righteousness, a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness Jesus saw in the scribes and Pharisees:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.(Matthew 5:20 NIV
We do not reach this deeper righteousness by merely being meticulous about the rules, a skill the scribes and Pharisees excelled at, but through a transformation of our character. It is not so much “do this, don’t do that,” but rather “become the kind of person who . . .” Previously, we looked at examples Jesus used for morality and love in Matthew 5:21-46, which we might summarize as; become the kind of person who does not harm others, gives their spouse and marriage their best effort, is honest and has integrity, handles offence with grace, and who extends grace and love to everyone. Whereas in these things Jesus was teaching about the kind of people we should become in our ethics, in Chapter 6 Jesus is now speaking to the kind of people we should become in our spiritual disciplines:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standingc in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-6 NIV
Jesus is not giving us new rules here to get all legalistic about. We are not to be Christian versions of the scribes and Pharisees and so apply these rules in a legalistic manner. If we did there should be no more prayers during church services, and prayer meetings would all be cancelled. I think we would benefit from more prayer in worship, not less, more prayer meetings, not fewer! Instead, we are to become “the kind of people” who do spiritual and religious activities in a way that honours God. What is that way which honours God?
Jesus calls us to be a people who engage in spiritual disciplines for the right reasons. Drawing attention to ourselves is not the right reason and does not honour God! Jesus calls those who do this “hypocrites” which is a term for “actors” who put on masks in order to appear to be one thing while actually being another. Jesus is picking on the scribes and Pharisees here who were the prime examples of those who loved to flaunt their righteous activity in front of others to be seen and praised by them. Jesus calls us to have a righteousness that surpasses theirs. According to Jesus, their reward was the praise they received from others. They did not look forward to reward from God. In contrast, God rewards those whose religious activity is done in secret.
What about the idea of reward? Isn’t reward still the wrong reason to practice spiritual disciplines? For example, should we not give alms for the sake of people in need rather than for our own reward? Perhaps we don’t have the best idea of reward here. Our minds may jump to a final judgement-seat scenario when we hear the word “reward.” However, the idea here is more “wages” for your work, the consequence of your efforts. If our purpose in practicing spiritual disciplines is to receive praise from others, we will get that. If our is purpose is to draw closer to God and grow in character, that will happen. If our focus is on God, the practice of spiritual disciplines will be rewarding indeed and we will be happy to practice them quietly without drawing attention to ourselves. Others may not be impressed, but will benefit.
In conclusion, let’s not be that guy; the person who has a need to appear religious, spiritual, righteous, or better than everyone else. That person is like the scribes and Pharisees who often put on a good show. We are to be a people who practice a better kind of righteousness in our spiritual disciplines. The spiritual life in Christ is not a show, it is an opportunity to grow in Christ and become a difference maker in the world.