Jesus’ “sixth commandment” involves three aspects of public piety, or making a show of being religious. The aspects He describes are good works, prayer and fasting. Jesus seems to be addressing a common trait of the time and place: religious self-promotion. The recurring formula, “they have their reward,” indicates the root of the problem.
Jesus is not interested in followers who are mainly interested in promoting themselves. Self-promotion takes the spotlight away from the Jesus Christ, who literally does the promoting from death to life. Since Jesus Christ is the only One who is able to give eternal life to His followers, He is the one who must be known to all.
Those Jesus describes as hypocrites want to be seen as somehow especially close to God because of their overt religiosity. Ironically, this makes others feel God is somehow only interested in performance rather than rescue. Jesus’ mission is not moral or religious reform. His mission is redemption. There is a big difference.
Inherent in the desire for adulation by the masses is lifting oneself up by putting others down. It is a way of saying, “See, I’m more righteous than you are!” The last thing such a person wants is universal righteousness, because there would be no reason to show off. Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyrical words say it well, “When everyone is somebody then no one’s anybody.” The hypocrisy Jesus is referring to may well be that of saying that everyone should be redeemed while showing off how much better they are than the unredeemed multitude.
Jesus’ commission to His disciples involves being an example of redemption, not of moral or religious coercion. Moral coercion (especially by hypocrites) leads to compliance at best or disillusionment and falling away at worst. Jesus is interested only in the nurturing, growth and overcoming that come from His Spirit within a believer. It is a new heart that seeks to promote redemption of others to new life. That heart leads to the promotion or lifting up of the other person rather than the self.
Acts of charity or worship need to be done out of a pure heart, not a self-serving one. Avoiding public exposure of one’s acts of help or worship (where possible) will go a long way toward focusing on redemption rather than adulation.