“Beware of practising your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
There is no more astonishing proof of human perversity than our skill at transforming spiritual holiness into self-righteous hypocrisy. We possess an uncanny knack for using submission to the will of God as an opportunity for showmanship in the eyes of man. Jesus knew this. He was not nave about this sinful propensity in our hearts. He knew how easy and natural it is for you and me to prostitute high Christian morality into cheap, legalistic rules. He knew how prone you and I are to substitute love for godliness and holiness with love for a reputation for godliness and holiness.
That is why immediately following the moral commands of Matthew 5 there comes a warning in Matthew 6. No sooner had Jesus said, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” than He says, “Be careful about practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” Knowing the human heart as he does, Jesus in effect says: “Christian, by all means be righteous. But Christian, be careful!” What we have in this passage, therefore, is a warning lest we become theatrical in our pursuit of purity and thereby transform holiness into hypocrisy.
Notice again the exhortation of Matthew 6:1. Does this conflict with Matthew 5:16 where Jesus encourages you to let your “light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven?” Does Jesus contradict Himself by commanding in 5:16 what he prohibits in 6:1? The clue lies in the fact that Jesus is speaking against different sins. It is our human cowardice which made Him say ‘Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works,’ and our human vanity which made Him tell us to beware of practising our piety before men. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus was concerned with the temptation to hide our discipleship in order to escape persecution, whereas in Matthew 6:1 He is concerned with our egotistical propensity to show off. Thus it is right to do good works in such a way that when people see them they think of God; it is wrong to do good works in such a way that when people see them they think of us. So we must ask ourselves: “Am I acting like a mirror, reflecting back all the glory to God, or am I acting like a sponge, absorbing all the attention and adulation for myself?”
As Dallas Willard notes, “our intent is determined by what we want and expect from our action.” When we do good deeds to be seen by human beings, that is because what we are looking for is something that comes from human beings. God responds to our expectations accordingly. When we want human approval and esteem, and do what we do for the sake of it, God courteously stands aside because, by our wish, it does not concern Him.
We should also be aware that the choice Jesus presents is not really between pleasing men and pleasing God. It is between pleasing God and pleasing ourselves. Our ultimate reason for trying to please others by our so-called righteous deeds is not out of a sincere concern for them. We want to please them because we believe that, if we do, they will think more highly of us!