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Beware of Practicing Your Righteousness!

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Beware of Practicing Your Righteousness!

Beware of Practicing Your Righteousness!

When Jesus began his ministry he had to start in an already very religious society. It was not so easy for him to share his teachings because he had seen some serious problems in religious society of practicing righteousness only to show and prove others. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were seeking human honour through all their activities, such as how they dressed, where they sat, and the titles they expected others to address them with, thus, seeking personal glory while pretending to be serving God. They got human honour fully, but not God’s. Even today in this 21st Century, we face a similar situation like during the time of Jesus, as there are a number of adults, especially immature religious leaders who crave attention just like little children whose self-esteem depends on the approval of others and religiosity on their demonstrations. Outwardly it can look like they are serving God, but inwardly seeking their own glory- self centeredness. Such people have always got to be the center of attention either to hold their office or to keep their place of position maintained.

Psychiatrists call it histrionic personality disorder. They make the people around them tired with their constant nagging that means constantly harassing someone to do something. We can understand people seeking personal glory through their own human achievements. But how could people possibly be trying to gain personal glory through church given responsibilities? Is Jesus against this public leadership of practicing righteousness with immature thinking, illogical reasoning and erroneous speaking as it becomes trendy righteousness in many religious societies? Do we teach others because we want to be up front or do we really care for others? or Is this only way of practicing righteousness bringing recognition to whatever we do? Often some pretend like that they don’t care to be recognized for whatever they do, but they really do bother. Actually, every human has a normal desire to be recognized and noticed by others.

There are many references in the Gospels when Jesus warned his disciples against this normal desire by saying something like, “Watch out” or “Take heed” or “Beware.” For instance, beware of the yeast which is hypocrisy; beware and keep yourselves from covetousness, for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses; beware of those who like to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts; beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves; beware of deceitful teachers who teach one thing but do the opposite themselves; watch out that you don’t get led astray, etc. The two primary sins of these false teachers were greed and pride, both of which Jesus warned. Greed to covet wealth and pride to give express command are two signs of it. Jesus taught his disciples the level of righteousness required to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is not a righteousness that comes from the Law and is practiced before others to be noticed by them rather God’s righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the Lord said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”(Mt.6:1). 

Basically, Jesus wanted his disciples to be better than the so-called religious leaders of the day. As Jesus had a great hope that his disciples should grow to be godly and later, through their preaching and teaching ministry countless people would also come to God’s kingdom. He also showed them that practicing God’s commands was not just about outward behaviours but about inner disposition- what’s in their hearts. Here the issue is motives. And that is the key to leadership, inner inspection of your integrity and your character, your gifts and your skills. Not like people who have the appearance of holiness, yet are full of wickedness and extortion (Luke 11:39). Let me quote an ancient phrase that says, “People look on the outside but God looks on the inside.” As the inside is important, so also the outside is important; that might mean to work on the inside for God and to work on the outside for people. Ultimately, practicing God’s commands means loving even our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Now Jesus moves on to three other forms of piety—giving, praying and fasting. Every righteous person is supposed to be doing these things regularly and Jesus did not tell his disciples to stop doing them, but to be careful about how they did them.

Practicing righteousness before others to be noticed or to become goody-goody at authorities’ sight in order to impress them is not beneficial for any religious leaders to get an eternal reward from God, the Father. Doing anything right in order to receive honour and glory from people is counterfeit and is just done only for the sake of pride. Saying elaborate prayers to seem spiritual or claiming to attend or conduct church prayer service every week, or claiming always to tithe of your income to the church, are all ways people try to elevate themselves in the eyes of people (Luke 18:10-14). Granted, all of these things are good to do, but it is the reasons why people are doing them that matters. It is to live before God, not before people. If it is so then one may question that at one place Jesus said, “Let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven,” and now here he says, “to be careful not to practice our righteousness before others,” do these not two sayings seem contradictory? No, Jesus does not mean we should be hiding all the time what we are doing good. He simply means that we should be seeking not people’s recognition for doing what is right and good, but we do it for God’s glory.

First of all, it is not easy to understand the phrase “your righteousness.” Often we do not feel like we have any righteousness. We easily associate practicing righteousness with self-righteousness which stands for the mask of righteousness hiding a secret inner world of selfishness, ungodly thoughts and feelings. Jesus said that our righteousness needs to surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He meant that we have to go deeper than them which include not only gaining knowledge but also grasping the spirit of God’s law. Jesus taught us to show ourselves as children of our Father in heaven, meaning we have to be generous, kind, and loving like God, even toward those who hate us. Jesus concludes that we have to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt.5:48)—perfect in character, perfect in holiness, perfect in maturity, perfect in practicing authority, perfect in communication, perfect in love. Obviously, that’s going to require lots of struggle and a life-long discipline of seeking God and imitating Jesus. Thus we become righteous not by works or doing what is expressly commanded or ordered but by faith in his grace (Eph2:8, 9). But by faith we need to be pursuing God’s righteousness that changes and sanctifies us. We should encourage one another to be pursuing this righteousness and practicing this righteousness for God’s reward.

Sometimes it becomes hard for those religious leaders who carry inherent mentality of their caste and culture, of their state belongingness and upbringing precepts, of their linguistic groupism and own traditions. Thus, it is easier said than done for them to follow and practice righteousness which our Lord Jesus and early Christians stood for. It is those religious leaders who decide what should be considered as righteous according to their like minded majority. They are unaware of the most prominent refrain in the Pauline corpus mentioned in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11, “here (in the Catholic Church) there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” God gives us His righteousness as a free gift when we believe and yet He also desires that we actually attain a level of righteousness as we mature in Christ. Jesus taught that God’s Word must be read, understood, interpreted and applied accurately if we are to live as God wills his people to live (John 14:21). Jesus also taught that certain sin goes far deeper than just the act of committing a sin but even the acts and thoughts that lead up to it are sinful. For example, murder is sinful and so is the anger in the heart that leads to murder. Jesus wants His people to live a life of righteousness from the heart.

This heart righteousness Jesus teaches us about is the superior righteousness. He teaches about doing your righteousness or righteous deeds that God wants us to do in the proper way and with the right motive, which again, comes from a right heart. Jesus wants us to see not just our actions but also our motives (Romans 2:7, 8). We may try to hide our motives from others, and we might succeed, but God our Father sees and knows everything. In this way being righteous becomes more significant than practicing righteousness before others. In other words, “how” becomes more noteworthy than “what.” By saying, “your Father sees what is done in secret,” Jesus wants to motivate us to do good before the eyes of our Father in heaven. Though people often misunderstand and even hurt us, we should commit ourselves to our faithful Creator and continue to do good (1Peter.4:19b). To really live like this, we’ve got to fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, and persevere because we see him who is invisible (2Corinthians4:18; Heb11:27b) for eternal reward.

This reward is the reward of being close to God forever (Ps16:11). It’s the reward of experiencing God’s love, peace and joy even now in this life (Eph.3:19; Phil.4:7; 1Pt.1:8). Ultimately, it is the reward of sharing his glory in his kingdom (Rom.8:17; 1Thess.2:12; 1Pt.5:10). Many people think it is not good to be doing something just to get a reward. Of course we should serve God purely, out of love for him. But Jesus repeatedly promises God will reward us if what we are doing is truly for him. So we all should learn to be seeking God’s reward. For a person is made righteous not by law but through the righteousness that comes by faith. May God help us to be careful to live before the eyes of God in all we do!

+ In Christ, 

Father Henry Peter MSFS,

Sacred Heart Church, Bhusawal, Maharashtra, India.


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