A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 A Christian’s religion: not hypocritical but real.
Jesus began his instruction on the hill by portraying in the beatitudes the essential elements of Christian *character*, and went on to indicate by his metaphors of salt and light the *influence* for good which Christians will exert in the community if they exhibit this character. He then described Christian *righteousness* which must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by accepting the full implications of God’s law without dodging anything or setting artificial limits. Christian righteousness is righteousness unlimited. It must be allowed to penetrate beyond our actions and words to our heart, mind and motives, and to master us even in those hidden, secret places.
Jesus now continues his teaching on ‘righteousness’. Chapter 6 begins (literally), ‘Beware of doing your righteousness before men.’ The word used (according to the correct reading) is *dikaiosune*, the same as in 5:6,20. Yet, although the word is the same, the emphasis has shifted. Previously ‘righteousness’ related to kindness, purity, honesty and love; now it concerns such practices as almsgiving, praying and fasting. Thus Jesus moves from a Christian’s moral righteousness to his ‘religious’ righteousness. Most versions recognize this change of subject in their translation. RSV renders the sentence, ‘Beware of practising your piety before men.’ and NEB, ‘Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men.’
It is important to acknowledge that according to Jesus Christian ‘righteousness’ has these two dimensions, moral and religious. Some speak and behave as if they imagine their major duty as Christians lies in the sphere of religious activity, whether in public (church-going) or in private (devotional exercises). Others have reacted so sharply against such an overemphasis on piety that they talk of a ‘religionless’ Christianity. For them the church has become the secular city, and prayer a loving encounter with their neighbour. But there is no need to choose between piety and morality, religious devotion in church and active service in the world, loving God and loving our neighbour, since Jesus taught that authentic Christian ‘righteousness’ includes both.
Moreover, in both spheres of righteousness Jesus issues his insistent call to his followers to be different. In Matthew 5 he teaches that our righteousness must be greater than that of the Pharisees (because they obeyed the letter of the law, while our obedience must include our heart) and greater also (in the form of love) than that of the pagans (because they love each other, while our love must include our enemies as well). Now in Matthew 6 with regard to ‘religious’ righteousness, he draws the same two contrasts. He takes the ostentatious religion of the Pharisees first and says: *You must not be like the hypocrites* (5). He then moves on to the mechanical formalism of the heathen and says: *Do not be like them* (8). Thus again Christians are to be different from both Pharisees and pagans, the religious and irreligious, the church and the world. That Christians are not to conform to the world is a familiar concept of the New Testament. It is not so well known that Jesus also saw (and foresaw) the worldliness of the church itself and called his followers not to conform to the nominal church either, but rather to be a truly Christian community distinct in its life and practice from the religious establishment, an *ecclesiola* (little church) *in ecclesia*. The essential difference in religion as in morality is that authentic Christian righteousness is not an external manifestation only, but one of the secret things of the heart.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:1 A Christian’s religion: not hypocritical but real (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.