As we have made our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we have considered how Jesus called his hearers to surpassing righteousness. Even as they upheld the religious leaders as the epitome of righteousness, he called them to surpass that righteousness.
He offered a number of practical examples in which citizens of his kingdom must have surpassing righteousness: in their approach to anger (5:21–26), lust (5:27–30), marriage (5:31–32), truth-keeping (5:33–37), retaliation (5:38–42), and enemy love (5:43–48). But lest his hearers think that surpassing righteousness is an easy thing to pursue, he takes time to explain some hindrances to surpassing righteousness. Even as we seek to obey his call to such righteousness, we will find these things preventing us from pursuing surpassing righteousness. He points to three broad categories of hindrances.
First, there is the barrier of simply keeping up religious appearances (6:1–18). Second, he addresses the hindrance of wealth and possessions (6:19–34). Third, he touches on the obstacle of a religious superiority complex (7:1–12).
With regard to the temptation of merely keeping up religious appearances, Jesus offers a few examples of what that might look like. We will consider each of his examples in turn in future devotionals, but the overriding principle is that we all too often hinder our own pursuit of surpassing righteousness by seeking attention. That is, we want our righteousness to be noticed, whether in giving (vv. 2–4), prayer (vv. 5–8), fasting (vv. 16–18), or any other spiritual discipline.
But Jesus warns his readers that if we live only to look good in the spiritual community, we will never attain surpassing righteousness. “Beware of practising 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” (6:1).
Note that the problem is not practising your righteousness before other people. We are called to do that. The New Testament consistently calls for us to live our Christian life in the context of community. We are not called to isolate ourselves and practise our righteousness in secret. But it is dangerous to practice righteousness before other people “in order to be seen by them.” Our motive in pursuing righteousness must always be to obey God, never to impress people.
Is your obedience to God motivated by a desire to impress your religious friends? Do you go through the motions of doing the appropriate religious things only for the applause that you receive from a respectable community? Good deeds should be performed before men in order that they might give glory to God (5:16), not to us.
If you do the righteous things only to be seen by people, you will have their applause, but “you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” You may receive the reward you want (the applause of people) but you will not receive the reward you really need (the applause of God).
Religious activity is not necessarily God-honouring activity. You can pray religiously without bringing honour to God. You can fast religiously without bringing honour to God. You can give religiously without bringing honour to God. You can preach or teach Sunday school religiously without bringing honour to God. And you may receive the thanks and applause of people, but God is not impressed.
What is your motivation for posting that photo of your early morning devotions on Instagram? What is your motivation for getting up early in the morning to attend that 5:00 AM prayer meeting? What is your motivation for involving yourself in youth ministry? Beware of keeping up religious appearances just for the sake of being noticed by your fellow Christians. They may be impressed. God is not.