Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent answering questions – questions about life, religious and ordinary. He was asked: who sinned that someone was born blind; to whom an oft widowed man would be married in heaven; how to pray; to whom monies should be paid; how one honors God.
That’s important. I realize that some questions are simply a concealed form of attack. But Jesus knew that questions often are how we learn. We note something unusual, we see something we don’t understand, we have something we want to learn – so we ask questions.
The Scriptures record the many helpful and creative answers Jesus had for specific questions. He understood and appreciated that honest questions could be an important part of one’s spiritual growth. If a person was open to fresh insights, to new truth, Jesus was ready to help them grow.
All this makes me wonder. In answering questions about religious practices and personal piety, I wonder if he ever quoted the first chapter of Isaiah – which happens to be a lectionary reading for this coming Sunday, Aug. 11.
The reading is God’s call of Isaiah to become a prophet – and some things God wanted Isaiah to say. God outlines some of the “sins” of the people. In doing so, God speaks clear, harsh words about how not to worship God.
God was impatient with the people’s piety and worship that God believed was little more than empty religiosity. God didn’t “sugar coat” the condemnation. Listen to the words.
“I’ve had enough of your burnt offerings. Your appointed festivals my soul hates.” Then, by way of contrast, God offers this alternative to fancy rituals. “…cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Jesus also admonishes those who assume their righteousness. “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord!’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Acting pious simply doesn’t cut it. Jesus is looking for substance in one’s holiness. Extravagant, excessive praise can diminish God. God is not neurotic demanding constant adulation. Rather, God wants us to show our love for God by our love for God’s people.
Please understand, worship (including praise) is a significant part of our religious responsibility. It serves key functions. Worship is our time to show honor and respect for the Almighty. Worship is a time to bring concerns to God. Worship is a time to receive inspiration to guide our lives. Worship is a time to unite our hearts with other worshiping people.
Also understand, temple worship was part of Jesus’ routine. Luke 4:16 says: “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” We even have other stories of Jesus in the temple. For the most part, however, Jesus’ ministry was marked by two key elements. 1) Most often his teaching grew out of questions asked of him or life situations he encountered. 2) Jesus said our responsibility to God was grounded heavily on how we act toward other people and their needs.
If we’re assessing another person, we gain less from what they claim about their religious life, and more from how they treat fellow workers, family members, subordinates, strangers, etc. Equally significant, when we seek to be honest about the depth of our own devotion to God, when we try to assess how “upright” we are, it behooves us to recall Jesus words in Matthew 25 when he says of those who ministered to people in need, “Just as you have done this to one of the least of these, you’ve done it to me.”
Jesus simply asks us to do more than talk the talk. We’re to walk the walk!
Rev. William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and a professor emeritus from the Methodist Theological School.