Practicing righteousness

“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).

To this point, Jesus has discussed prohibitions found in God’s Law: do not murder, or even surrender to anger; do not commit adultery, or even surrender to lust; do not resist an evil person. Even the positive commandment, love your enemies, is largely a prohibition against treating people in response to what they have done in the past or what they might do in the future. Each of these commandments relates to our neighbors, the people we encounter in this world.

Jesus now speaks of positive things and of things pertaining to our relationship with God. He describes three things God expects us to do: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Jesus does not question whether we will do these things—he firmly says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” These are positive actions, but Jesus adds one prohibition: we are not to do these things in a way that calls attention to ourselves from other people.

In this tightly-knit set of teachings, Jesus repeats a refrain. He says that what we do to impress people here on earth will be ignored by our Father in heaven. Only the things we do secretly, thinking about God and not about other people, are seen and rewarded by God. Our relationship with him is an inner relationship, a matter of the heart. When we start trying to impress people—when we want to be recognized on earth as holy, religious, spiritual, or good-hearted—we omit God from our spiritual life.

Other religions know this as well. What matters most in many religions is a relationship with the divine. Things done for attention here on earth are ignored in heaven. God is our first priority; everything else is forgotten as we draw near to God.

Many teachers would frown even at Jesus’ mention of a reward from our Father in heaven. If we do holy things to earn a reward, we are not really doing them for God. What sounds like a paradox is actually sensible: Whatever we do on earth to earn a reward earns no reward; whatever we do to serve God without seeking a reward will be rewarded.

Jesus plainly says that God rewards those who seek him. His reward is not measured in worldly ways—in money or influence or even good feelings. We are not invited to tell God what reward he should give us. God chooses the rewards he gives. He has already given us gifts and blessings, including the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the new creation. We have the kingdom of heaven. We will be comforted. We will inherit the earth. We will be satisfied. We will be shown mercy. We will see God. We will be called sons of God. What reward do we need or want beyond these gifts? God chooses fitting rewards for those who seek him. He has selected rewards for all those who set aside the things of this world because their hearts already are in the kingdom of heaven. J.