Matthew 6:1-4 (NRSV)
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
How do you “practice your piety”? In these verses and the ones that follow, Jesus names almsgiving, praying, and fasting as practices that show religious devotion. In our day, we might add studying the Bible, listening to Christian music, or serving meals to the homeless. We attend church faithfully and donate turkeys and canned goods and clothing for distribution to the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
All these practices are good, Jesus would say, but beware. Godly deeds can easily mask a heart that is, in reality, far from God. Look at the rewards you receive for your good deeds, and you will discover the secret desire that motivates your piety.
Jesus divides the rewards into two categories: being seen by others and seeing God.
Being seen by others. The hypocrites (literally, “actors”) pretend devotion to God when they are really devoted to attracting praise and attention. We don’t have to announce our religious devotion on street corners to qualify as hypocrites. Piety becomes fake any time we perform good deeds with the goal of being seen as a good person, whether in the eyes of others or in our own opinion. The reward of being admired can feel so good that our practicing piety can become compulsive and addictive. Jesus warns that ego strokes are all the satisfaction that hypocrites can expect to receive.
Seeing God. Earlier in his teaching, Jesus tells his disciples, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). For those who seek God with pure motives, God’s reward is himself. Jesus challenges us to take the focus off ourselves and our need for attention and instead to give praise and attention to God. Then all our piety practices—praying, Bible reading, worshipping, serving others—become opportunities to find and be with God rather than platforms for promoting ourselves. We love, forgive, and serve one another, not so we can credit ourselves with goodness but because these are attributes of the God we desire and the qualities that bring us close to him.
FATHER, you know my heart better than I do. You know my secret desires. Show me in what ways I am an actor rather than a true follower of you. Change my heart to desire you more than I desire the admiration of others and my own good opinion of myself.
Psalm 37:4; Matthew 5:8
Name an act of piety that you practice and then list its rewards for you. Is seeing God among these rewards?