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.
Thus far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been showing the people how to have a better form of righteousness in their relationships and dealings with others, now He shifts the focus to show them a better relationship with God. The people of His day were used to a form of righteousness that was centered upon showing others how righteous you are, and maybe that is still the case; I’ll leave that to others to debate. It is Jesus’ clear purpose to teach something quite revolutionary and different.
The first sentence of this verse tells the story: “be careful” tells us right off that we are to be intentional in this, intentional not to practice acts of righteousness or “piety” in front of an audience. Why is that? Because it does not matter what other people think of your level of righteousness, for they have nothing to say on the subject; even when they talk quite a lot. It is only important that God knows where you are, and He knows what we do in private. That first sentence continues to the point: “…in front of others to be seen by them” tells us that if the whole reason we are doing something is to impress people, then we have a problem.
Years ago I worked in a place where everyone was made aware that on Christmas Day the boss served meals in a homeless shelter. It was common knowledge that one way to get ahead in the organization was to do the same; there was a fair amount of not so subtle pressure to be there on Christmas when the boss was there… To be sure, what the boss was doing at the shelter was a good thing, but then quite a few “movers and shakers” were there making a point on Christmas, but who was there the day after and the day after that? Christmas isn’t the only day of the year on which a person must eat. No, the gesture was merely a political one; I didn’t participate in it.
The second sentence of this verse tells the story about what Jesus is trying to impress upon His listeners: If we perform acts of righteousness simply to impress other people, then we will not receive a reward from our Father, for we have received our due from the people we have impressed with our “goodness”. Again, many people do good deeds for the wrong reasons, and let’s be honest, the guy in the homeless shelter is just happy to have a warm meal. Yes, that may be “good” but it isn’t righteousness in God’s sight. Rather, it is the same thing as trying to attain righteousness by our own ability to keep the Law instead of having faith in God.
God wants a people who do the right things when nobody else is looking, who do the right things not for worldly advantage, but because they love God and they love others: Radical indeed!