Do we or don’t we? Do Matt 5:16 and 6:1 contradict each other?
“…Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
“Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them.”
At first glance you can see how a skeptic might see those two instructions as contradictory: Do your good works in front of people. Don’t do your good works in front of people.
But is that really the way to read them? There are a few different things to be said about this “contradiction.”
First, words matter. Calling this a contradiction assumes that “good deeds” and “acts of righteousness” are the same thing. That is not obvious, especially if you read the kinds of things that follow each instruction – they are two rather different lists.
Second, meaning matters. Even if those two phrases mean the same thing, they are not self-contained thoughts. Merely comparing the two sentences should be enough to make the message clear: Your goal is supposed to be bringing glory to God, not you.
Third, message matters. These sentences are not self-contained. Each begins a new, but related, idea in this sermon:
We are to shine a light in this world so that people will see God through us. Our righteousness needs to be more than just the external observance of the Law. We don’t just shun murder but also hate. We must avoid adultery and also lust and divorce. As people of the truth we don’t just keep our oaths but make every word as reliable as an oath. And we must love those who hate us and even those who abuse us.
But religious observance done for the sake of human praise will gain you only human praise. Instead keep your piety private, and the Father, “who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
So don’t concern yourself with accumulating earthly treasures, which will pass away. Instead, strive for the rewards of God.
Taken in context, are these two verses contradictory? We wish they were.
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