Getting your righteousness right

Matthew 6:1-18

12 November 2006

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


Be careful! Danger! Beware!

That's how Jesus starts the next section of the Sermon on the Mount that we come to in chapter 6 of Matthew's gospel: with a warning.

We can see that we've reached a new section because the pattern has changed. In the second part of chapter 5 we've had six paragraphs where he has announced you have heard it said... but I tell you.... Now he changes tack, and Jesus' warning is "Get your righteousness right!". Verse 1 Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.ref

First I want to look at what he means by 'acts of righteousness' here. So my first heading is religious righteousness required.

Religious Righteousness Required

You probably know that I am fond of saying that Christianity is not a religion. But, much as I'd like to, I can't deny that there is actually a religious dimension to our faith.

In verse 1 Jesus speaks of "acts of righteousness", and he unpacks what he means in the following verses that were read: he means giving and praying and fasting. These three are nothing if not religious activities, are they? They are integral to the Jewish religion; they make up three of the five pillars of Islam. And it is clear that Jesus expected his followers to give and to pray and to fast as well. Time and again he says when you give, when you pray, and when you fast. There's no uncertainty, no get-out clause, just an expectation that those who come to him would be people who give and pray and fast.

The difference from other religions, of course, is the reason we do these things.

If you'll permit a hopeless analogy: doing bench-presses or using a step machine are not what make you a member of the gym. Only paying the subscription grants you that. But once you are a member, these are the kinds of things you do (or so I imagine — you can probably tell that I don't spend a whole lot of time down the gym).

It is the same with Jesus. Giving and praying and fasting don't help us at all as we seek to join up. Only trusting in the death of Jesus for our forgiveness can grant us that. But once we have joined up with him they are activities that become entirely appropriate.

It has to be said, though, that in some church traditions there is a suspicion about laying any kind of emphasis on promoting these kinds of religious activities. There is a right concern about the dangers of falling into religious legalism or formalism if discipline in giving or prayer is overdone.

And that goes double for fasting. John Stott observes "Here is a passage of scripture that is commonly ignored. I suspect that some of us live our Christian lives as if these verses had been torn out of our Bibles." But the fact is that fasting is an Old and New Testament practice: we find the church in Acts fasting on a number of occasions. And it has been the practice of the Christian church throughout its history.

Are these three: giving, prayer and fasting an integral part of our devotional lives? If not, why not?

Of course, the fear of of falling into legalism or formalism is understandable, but we mustn't let that overshadow the fact that Jesus expects his followers to pray, to give and to fast. In fact, his warning here is nothing to do with legalism or formalism; his warning, rather, is about hypocrisy.

The point of Jesus' warning is hammered home in the way he repeats the same structure three times in the following verses, (if we just skip over the Lord's prayer just for now — don't worry, we'll come back to it later).

First he states the wrong way to do things. Three times he says:

Then he states the right way to do things. Three times he says:

So, this is the substance of Jesus' warning: we can get righteousness wrong, or we can get righteousness right.

How to get righteousness wrong

First how to get righteousness wrong: put on a show!

It is the hypocrites who get righteousness wrong. In New Testament Greek a hypocrite is an actor who wears a mask. Somebody who is playing a part. And they love to put on a show. Jesus draws caricatures of them in this passage.

When these people give there's a fanfare of trumpets: look everybody, I'm about to make my donation. Come on, come and have a look. See how generous I am!

When they pray they love to do it openly and loudly. Listen to my prayer! Isn't it eloquent! Isn't my theology spot-on! Listen to the Bible quotes I use! There aren't many who could pray a prayer like this.

And when they fast they make sure everybody know it. The ultra-religious pharisees would fast every Monday and Thursday, and evidently they made sure that everybody knew about it. They went around looking miserable, disfiguring their faces into grimaces.

In each case they were playing to the audience. Their intention was, we are told, to be seen by men and to be honoured by men. The Greek verb translated "to be seen" is "theathenai" form which we get the word "theatre". And so we are to understand that it was all for show, all an act. None of this had a reality behind the scenes. They were, in short, hypocrites.

A few years BC — that's before children — Penny and I enjoyed a holiday in Morocco. One of the places we stayed was a hotel in a huge film-set in the desert. Scattered across the sand were amazing pieces of scenery from films: Roman amphitheatres, palaces and the like. They looked extremely impressive and plausible from the front. But go round the back, and you find that there's nothing there. Just a load of sticks of wood propping the whole thing up. Isn't that sometimes what our lives are like?

That's the essence of hypocrisy: a good outward show with no reality behind it. There's a mismatch between inner and outer life. In Matthew 23, Jesus' speaks against the hypocrisy of the pharisees, which he sums up like this, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.ref

So these hypocrites, these play-actors, craved attention from others, and that's exactly what they got. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full, Jesus says on each occasion. They got their round of applause; they got their slap on the back.

But, just like actors, they were only ever as good as their last review. The reward of the hypocrite is the approval of men, but we all know how insecure and fleeting that is. God, of course, is entirely unimpressed.

Obviously none of us would be so crass, would we! Of course not, Jesus is painting a caricature. But I'm fairly sure that there aren't many of us who, when we look at our own motives for our religious service, won't find the shadows of hypocrisy there. Why do you do what you do in the church?

The desire to seek approval from others is a deeply rooted weed in our lives. It's a particular issue for those of us who find ourselves at the front of church from time to time. The temptation to hypocrisy is hard to avoid up here. I would be a pretty ineffective preacher if I went into my room and shut the door to preach (although some of you might rather I did). By definition it is done in public. So, every time I speak I agonise about my desire to seek approval from you rather than God. The devil plays on my hopeless vanity and pride so that I'm always tempted look for the compliment; always comparing myself with other preachers; always hoping to be recognised.

But you don't have to be standing up here to be susceptible to hypocrisy. All my acts of service seem somehow to be tainted with desire for others to approve of them. I find that even when I when I have the opportunity to tell someone about Jesus, my first thought is not thankfulness to God, but "Wait until I tell the discipleship group about this" ! Does that sound familiar at all?

Hypocrisy can infect any of our acts of service. We can be washer-uppers who just love to be seen, seeking the praise of men, not God — oh so humble, oh so reliable!

We should notice as well that we don't always need an audience of others to practise our hypocrisy. Sometimes we can provide a perfectly good audience for ourselves.

Jesus says of giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. He is aware of the danger of self-congratulation, patting ourselves on the back. And it applies equally to our prayers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of prayer "I can lay on a very nice show for myself even in the privacy of my own room." And I have no doubt that there is plenty of room for pride in our fasting as well.

Getting righteousness wrong is valuing the praise of others more than the praise of God. It is when we put on a show for others, or ourselves: when the outward doesn't match the inward.

So let's look at how to get righteousness right.

How to get righteousness right

How to get righteousness right: go into your room. Jesus says that our religious disciplines must remain hidden from the world. They are between us and God alone. Go into your room.

So, when we give, far from announcing it to the world, we are barely to allow our selves to know about it. Our giving should be free, and unselfconscious, and unfettered by self-analysis. If we are calculating about our giving — in terms of a percentage of our gross pay, or our net pay, or our disposable income — then we are letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing. If we are secretly rather pleased with our giving, then we are falling into the hypocrisy trap. Likewise if we find ourselves comparing our giving to the giving of others. Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

When we pray, our habit should be to find a private place and shut the door, to meet alone with our God. This can't mean that we can never pray in public, but if our public prayers dominate our private prayers then we should worry about hypocrisy. Our personal, devotional prayers should vastly outweigh the prayers that others see. Any kind of public prayer is going to involve a certain amount of playing to the gallery; it is only in our truly private moments with God that we find reality. One of my Spiritual heroes, Robert Murray M'Cheyne wrote, "A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more." Sobering, isn't it? God cannot be deceived as our other audiences can. Only total honesty and openness before him is advisable. And the only place we can truly achieve this is alone before him. Go into your room and close the door.

And when we fast, we should go out of our way not to let on to others. When Jesus says put oil on your head and wash your faceref, he is not advocating something unusual. To put oil in the hair was part of the normal daily routine in his day. So we might say: wash your hair, and put your make-up on. Follow your normal daily routine. Don't put on your miserable fasting-face!

So, our religious righteousness is to be kept between us and God. It is no business of anyone else. He sees, and he knows, and he should be our only audience.

But isn't there a paradox here? Turn back for a second to chapter 5, verse 16, where Jesus says, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.ref Does this not contradict our passage in chapter 6?

It seems that, in Chapter 5, when it comes to our Christ-like moral character, Jesus insists that we flaunt it openly, and thereby show him to the world. That's because we lack boldness, and we would much rather hide him from a hostile world. But, in chapter 6, when it comes to the activities by which God builds that character in us — our religious devotions — we are to keep them hidden, because our hearts always tend towards pride and hypocrisy.

A good rule of thumb, then, is make sure you are seen when you want to hide; and make sure you hide when you want to be seen. In other words, choose your audience carefully.

If we do this, then we are promised a reward. Three times we are told, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. What is this reward? Aren't we mercenary to desire a reward for our efforts? Doesn't this taint our motives?

Well, notice that the reward is from our Father who is in heaven, but we do not have to wait until we are in heaven. No doubt there will be reward when we get there — the "well done, good and faithful servant" , but the proper reward for these "acts of righteousness" is deeper relationship with God here and now.

Getting righteousness right leads to the reward of a relationship with God.

We see this in the insertion of the Lord's prayer here. Being a logical person, I've been quite troubled about the way Jesus breaks up the pattern of these verses to insert the Lord's prayer here. I was tempted to skip over it altogether, but I didn't want to disappoint my daughter Rebekah. For some reason, she's very fond of tortoises, and this is of course the "prayer that Jesus taught us".

But, of course the real reason that Jesus teaches us the Lord's prayer here is because it so beautifully expresses our relationship with our Father who is in heaven. It perfectly spells out the reward we have in knowing him.

It's tragic, isn't it, that this prayer has now often become the very thing that Jesus spoke against: babbled by pagans. It is this prayer we muttered daily when I was at school, barely a believer among us. But really the prayer is all about relationship: knowing God as our Father; his kingdom that we belong to; his care for our daily needs for food, forgiveness, and protection.

This is our reward for our "acts of righteousness" — a deeper relationship with God. Of course, our relationship with him is built solely on the foundation of forgiveness that Jesus achieved for us when he died on the cross. We can't add anything to that. But once we are his, our relationship is maintained and deepened by these secret religious devotions: giving, praying, fasting.


To get righteousness wrong is to do it all for others, to make our lives a kind of religious show. With no reality behind it.

To get righteousness right is to do it all for God: 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.ref

So let's build these things — unselfconscious giving, private prayer and secret fasting — let's build them into the fabric of our lives, if we haven't done so already. In a few weeks I'll be taking a survey to see how we're all getting on, and there's a prize for the best performer. No, no! Let's do these things, but I don't want to know about them! They are between you and God alone.

But of course I, and the world, will be able to tell if our devotions are good, because a deep relationship with God cannot be hidden away. It will express itself in all kinds of beautiful ways: not to gain praise, but simply to honour our Father.

The world's greatest charge against the church is its hypocrisy, even more in view of the events of the last weeks in the American church. More importantly, Jesus' greatest charge against the church is its hypocrisy as well. That's why he warns us so strongly: Be careful! Danger! Beware!