The last sentence of the end of Matthew 5—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV)—does have, I admit, a certain culminative feel to it after all Jesus’ smaller “You’ve heard it said that…, but I say that…” behavioral instructions that precede it. Still, to me the first sentence of Matthew 6—“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them”—seems unnaturally separated from the directive from which it derives: the call to be perfect as God is perfect, or to be utterly and totally righteousness.
If I might be momentarily afforded as much license as that old archbishop to shape how we’re to understand this part of Jesus’ sermon, I would like to paraphrase Jesus’ sermon as follows:
You’ve been told lots of things about how to be righteous. But I’m telling you, being righteous is a much bigger enterprise than those measly directives. Indeed, to be truly righteous, you need to be perfect as God is perfect. (I won’t add the caveat I think Jesus implies here: namely, that being as righteous as God is impossible for us humans.) But when you practice this sort of righteousness, be careful not to do it to show off…
Jesus then goes on to give examples of how one might show off one’s righteousness.
Suffice it to say that, for me, this is a crucial moment in Jesus’ teaching, where the apparent call to perfect righteousness and our inherent unrighteousness collide. Is Jesus really expecting us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? If so, why does he point out, in the very next breath, that our very attempts at righteous behavior will be poisoned by pride? The two sentences, read sequentially, house the dilemma of Christian living: how to reconcile our goal of perfection with our inherent imperfection.
Later in Jesus’ life he will make clear his own role in resolving that dilemma. In dying for us and then coming back to life, he does our righteousness for us. What does that mean, though, in terms of daily living? Should we, or shouldn’t we, strive for perfection? Is Jesus’ command to his listeners then still valid for us?
The operative word in this early sermon, it seems to me, is “practice.”* It helps me understand Jesus’ instruction if I read the word “practice,” here, in the sense of practicing piano—as in, learning how to play better.
No matter how much we might like to, independent of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we can’t be perfect as God is perfect. But we can practice.
*The Greek word translated as “practice” in the 2011 NIV is ποιέω—poieō, the source of our word poem. It means, very broadly, to do, which is how it was translated in the original NIV of 1984: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” In the 2011 NIV, in addition making of this passage gender-inclusive and getting rid of the mysterious quotation marks (hooray!), the massive group of NIV translators and editors called the International Bible Society changed “do” in this sentence to “practice” and “acts of righteousness” to simply “righteousness.” So, instead of talking about when we “do “‘acts of righteousness,’” Jesus in the newer translation is talking about when we “practice righteousness.”