In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus gave his disciples instructions for a kingdom kind of righteous living that would actually embody the Law’s holy essence, surpassing the hypocrisy displayed by the scribes and Pharisees. To guard his disciples from this same corrupting hypocrisy, Jesus now transitions to the attitude or mindset by which kingdom righteousness is maintained and embodied. As a type of introductory statement, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…”
As followers of Jesus, we must practice righteous living; as members of community, righteous living must be practiced before people. Where we risk corrupting righteous living with hypocrisy, however, is when we begin living it out “to be noticed” by people.
We all have a need to be affirmed or valued; to be acknowledged by someone outside ourselves for doing what is right. Initially, we usually look for this affirmation from parents, peers, or mentors; if, however, not eventually grounded in glad submission to the sovereign God, it can inflame into an insecurity that fluctuates between two different, albeit connected extremes of motivation.
One extreme could be a debilitating sense of self-loathing or self-abasement where we see ourselves as worthless or unlovable, going through life in constant need of someone’s encouragement, though never convinced or satisfied with it.
The opposite extreme may overcompensate for the insecurity by earning affirmation through arrogant means of intimidation or domination by trying to impress others or narcissistically showing off how righteous or spiritually competent or affluent we are.
What both extremes add up to, however, is life fearfully lived with the “Sovereign Self” as our center, teeter-tottering back and forth in an imbalance of ravenous insecurity that projects a deceiving version of ourselves comprised of hypocrisy rather than holiness. “Beware” Jesus says.
He continues to warn “otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
The implications are perilously clear: why should we receive a reward from the Father when we weren’t working for one? Like the Pharisees and scribes, if the sum of our ambition is to be called “Pastor” or treated like some “church godfather” or super-Christian or spiritual expert, we should not expect anything from the Father because it was people’s respect and praise we were craving all along. In a sense, it’s as if Jesus is saying “I hope that earthly esteem was satisfying, because that’s all you’re getting.”
Jesus’ comment is a beacon in our obsession with Self, a restorative call to live life with the Father as our center, his glory and worth as our motivation. When Jesus began this message, he said “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify you Father who is in heaven”.
We live kingdom righteousness, not “to be noticed by [men]”, but “before men in such a way” that when they see our good works, it is the Father who is delighted in, enjoyed, and magnified in their minds and mouths.
As the perfect image of the Father, Jesus is the focal point that centers us in the Father; following after Jesus, prayerfully and obediently, forms Christ in us so only Christ will be revealed when his works are done before men.
We are not the source of salvation. Why would we ever want to distract people from him who saves by becoming someone’s idol? Through careful, prayerful contemplation, it is crucial we examine ourselves to understand exactly what is motivating us to kingdom living. It is not enough to assume or assert we do it for God’s glory; we really do have to do it for God’s glory.
Jesus himself eschewed fame, letting the salvation substance of who he was and what he taught ferment into a full bodied bouquet of blessedness within the people’s awareness. Following Jesus keeps us grounded in his cross-shaped humility, purging hypocrisy and fostering holiness. As we evade the limelight to shine out his light, we embody a righteousness that could captivate a wandering world to the Savior at its center.
Deep beneath and within the layers of you, what is motivating you to Christian living?