In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus challenge some different narratives with examples of people doing good works. So take a deep breath, and let’s jump in!
Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, 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. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- Why would Jesus tell these people to do these things in a solitary way, rather than in front of others?
- Why is Jesus being so direct on this matter? What is he communicating about their actions?
- What would people gain from practicing these spiritual disciplines in public for all to see?
- What are your motives for doing “good works” in your life?
In this passage, the people Jesus is referencing probably received praises for their “good works,” allowing them to seem more spiritual to those around them. Here Jesus peels back the façade and shows us that their motivations do not match their actions.
In some of our churches, maybe you feel defined by how “righteous” you appear. Or in Greek life, maybe there is an image that your chapter needs to uphold. Our culture says that we are defined by how we appear to others. For example, I often feel self-conscious about my role in leading people spiritually as a minister with Greek IV. Eyes are everywhere! When I’m at church or on campus, I feel the need to be a perfect Christian, especially when it comes to serving others well. So when I’m upset or angry, I can quickly put on a façade that all is fine, and that everything is as it should be. I never want to diminish my role as a leader in the eyes of others, thus compromising my skills as a minister. It’s easy to simply do the tasks of ministry and look good doing it…all while leaving my heart at home.
In this sermon, Jesus is not condemning these practices themselves but rather the way they are preformed. He’s getting to the heart of the matter: their intentions and their motive behind doing good works.
Jesus is showing us this: Our motives matter. Are we doing things from the heart or from the desire to impress others with our righteousness or success?
This passage challenges me to peel back the layers of the public eye and lean into my own heart. Am I truly letting God define my value and importance? Or am I letting others do it for me? If I’m honest, my motives can often come from a place of selfishness; I want to look good in the eyes of those around me. But God calls us into something deeper than the temporary praise and rewards from the world.
If we align our motives with God’s, we’ll find that his reward is much greater than anything we could’ve thought of for ourselves.
Questions for Reflection
- Where do you receive your value and importance? Is it from God or those around you?
- What are your true motives for doing “good works”? Is your heart aligned with God? Or is it aligned with what the world tells you is important?
- Has there ever been a time where your intentions do not match your actions? What was the outcome of that? How can you invite God to help align your motives with His own?