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Practicing Our Righteousness


T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral recounts the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop in England, Becket came into conflict with King Henry II. That conflict threatened his life. Facing this threat, Eliot imagines Becket tempted to pursue martyrdom in order to attain fame. But Becket rejects the temptation, saying, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” The reason for which we act, Becket suggests, is crucial, and it is evil to do a good deed for a bad reason, such as fame.

Eliot’s famous line helps us understand Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 6. Here, Jesus warns His disciples against practicing their righteousness in front of others (v. 1). At first glance, this teaching seems to contradict Jesus’ command, scarcely a chapter earlier, that His disciples should “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds” (5:16). How does it fit with His later instructions to give alms (vv. 2–4), pray (vv. 5–6), and fast (vv. 16–18) in secret? The key comes in the phrase “to be seen by them” (v. 1). Jesus does not warn against practicing our righteousness altogether; nor does He teach that we should never act righteously in public. Rather, He wants His disciples not only to do righteous acts but to do them for the right reason—so that others will “glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16).

The kind of self-righteousness displayed by hypocrites who seek their own glory does little to lead others to glorify God. Rather than hypocrites, God desires (and the world needs) people so devoted to God that they do the right thing even when no one is watching. Anything less is tantamount to treason.

Apply the Word

Jesus said to let our light shine before others (5:16) and warned against practicing our righteousness to be seen by others (6:1). We face two dangers: first, hiding our faith from others; second, flaunting our faith in order to gain their admiration. Which are you more tempted to do? How might you better follow Jesus by doing the right thing for the right reason?

BY Brad Burton

Brad Burton has taught theology and ethics at several theological schools across the country. His writing and teaching focus on the role of the church in helping Christians to proclaim and live the faith. He serves the church in lay ministry and supply preaching, and he enjoys hiking and cycling with his wife and two children.

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