True righteousness acts for the good of others whether or not one can be seen to help.
While it is true that God desires his people to be people of compassion, Yeshua clarifies the distaste that God has for the selfish motives behind the corrupted practices of the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day.
Matthew 6:1 – “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.”
The ancient Hebraic idea of righteousness was a concept that included more than just the giving of alms or financial assistance that it is typically equated with in this passage. Clearly, the whole context of this teaching by Yeshua is on the avoidance of hypocrisy; one should not do righteous actions just to be seen of others.
These righteous actions that Yeshua is focused on were the typical practices that the Pharisees and religious leaders strove for in their public observance of their religion; giving of alms, prayer, and fasting. So instead of Yeshua’s admonition applying only to the practice of almsgiving, we can view his statement of practicing righteousness as a heading for all three of these categories, in this fashion:
- Matthew 6:1 – “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.”
- 6:2 – So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…
- 6:5 – Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites…
- 6:16 – Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites.
The challenge for the Messiah believer is that we are equally commanded to make our giving private and sincere, while at the same time ensuring our light is not hidden under a basket.
Matthew 5:15-16 – “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Albert Barnes highlights it is not the public nature of the act which is problematic, but the motive behind the act:
“Our Lord does not require us never to give alms before people, but only forbids our doing it “to be seen of them,” for the purposes of ostentation and to seek their praise. To a person who is disposed to do good from a right motive, it matters little whether it be in public or in private. The only thing that renders it even desirable that our good deeds should be seen is that God may be glorified.”
In a similar way, Charles Ellicott focuses on this dichotomy that the believer faces between the two extremes of private sincerity and public actions of compassion:
“It is the motive, and not the fact of publicity, that vitiates the action. The high ideal of the disciple of Christ is to let his light shine “before men” (the self-same words are used in Matthew 5:16 as here), and yet to be indifferent to their praise or even their opinion. In most religious men there is probably a mingling of the two motives, and we dare not say at what precise stage the presence of the lower overpowers the higher. It is enough to remember that it is the little speck which may taint the whole character till it loses all its life.”
For the believer today, it is probably best to remember that God desires us to help others from the heart, not for the purpose of being seen as generous or from a strict sense of unwilling duty. As new creations in Messiah, our renewed nature should naturally gravitate towards generosity and self-sacrifice on behalf of others. We should be extending the compassion of God to those who need it most regardless if we are recognized, but also never shying away from doing what is right when others may not be willing to do so. By keeping our focus on the needs of those we are helping and not how we are being perceived, we can rise above the shallowness of hypocrisy that is offensive to God.
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