The gospel for today is from Matthew 6 and is part of the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), but too often it is presented in isolation from the Sermon and thus the connection is not obvious to many listeners. Jesus has begun to preach in Galilee, as Scripture foretold (4:12–17), and large crowds are being attracted to his teaching (4:23–25). Matthew presents a lengthy collection of that authoritative teaching.
There is a case to be made that the teaching is addressed, initially at least, not to the crowds, but rather to the narrower circle of his committed disciples, to whom we have been introduced in 4:18–22. The argument is that they are now taken apart from the crowds to be instructed on what their new commitment involves. The focus of these chapters is not then the wider proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom,” (4:23) but the instruction of those who have already responded to that proclamation, and now need to learn what life in the “kingdom of heaven” is really about. The teaching will frequently describe them as a special group who stand over against, and indeed are persecuted by, people in general. They are those who have entered into a new relationship with “your Father in heaven,” and who in consequence are called to a radically new lifestyle, in conscious distinction from the norms of the rest of society. R.T. France thinks that this Matthean discourse would be better known as the “Discourse on Discipleship” so people understand that this is not a general code of ethics but rather the specific demands of the kingdom of heaven.
The last main section of the “Sermon on the Mount” (…or Discourse on Discipleship) focuses on setting out a “righteousness” greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). The discourse now goes on to warn against a wrong kind of “righteousness” (6:1), which is undertaken not to conform to the will of God and to imitate his perfection, but to gain human approval. The people who practice this kind of righteousness are described as “hypocrites,” a term which occurs frequently in Matthew for the official (or self-appointed) representatives of religion. The moniker will be applied six times in Mt 23 for the scribes and Pharisees. Some of the failings with which the scribes and Pharisees will be charged focus on a similar concern for externals and lack of inward depth. The contrast with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees which underlay 5:20–48 is thus continued in this passage; the disciples are not to be like them. But the focus has moved from ethical distinctions to the practice of religion, the “righteousness” of 6:1 being not so much a moral orientation as a religious one, practical piety.
The basic framework of the passage is an introductory exhortation (..take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father; v.1) illustrated by three matching contrasts (vv. 2–4, 5–6, 16–18) setting out the wrong and the right way to undertake three prominent religious duties, alms-giving, prayer and fasting. The wording of the three contrasts follows a standard pattern: “do not be like the hypocrites or behave like them…but when you…” This is followed by concluding clauses (“Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward” … “may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you”).
The wrong way in each case is a matter of outward show, looking for human approval; the right way is that of secrecy, which only God can see. It is only the latter kind of “righteousness” that God, who is strikingly described as “being in secret,” will reward, whereas the brazen piety of the hypocrites has received the only reward it will get (and is looking for), the approval of other people