The 15th chapter of Matthew tells the story of Jesus being questioned by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They had noticed that this popular teacher and his followers didn’t bother to wash their hands in the traditional ceremonial way before eating and they wanted to know why not. As he so often did, Jesus answered their question with another question. Why do you, He asked, make the commandment about honoring your mother and father of none effect? You give the money to the temple that you would have spent caring for your parents and thereby proclaim yourselves relieved of the obligation to take care of your parents. They didn’t have a good answer for that one.
Jesus went on to say that Isaiah was prophesying about them when he said, these people draw near me in word only but their hearts are far from me. In other words, he was telling the Pharisees and teachers of the law something they should have known from scripture: God looks on the heart, not on outward appearance. For example, when Samuel was sent to anoint a new king for Israel, he wanted to anoint David’s regal looking big brothers, not the ruddy lad whose job was to care for sheep. But God told Samuel in no uncertain terms that He looks on the heart, even though men look on the outward appearance.
Sometimes I’m glad God looks on my heart, especially at those times when I’m misjudged or someone ascribes motives to me that were not my intent at all. Like all of us fallible humans, though, I’m sometimes not glad that He knows my heart. A good ambition for all of us would be to live in the full awareness that God sees our hearts. If we are convinced moment by moment that God is present, our lives would be pure.
God can’t be fooled. I have known people who think going to church and warming a pew is serving the Lord. I guess, in a sense, it is, because it acknowledges our need to gather together as believers. But doesn’t true service go beyond mere attendance at a meeting of like-minded believers. Isn’t the purpose of our meeting together fellowship and recharging our batteries so we can go out and do ministry?
I heard a story about a preacher fresh out of seminary who led his congregation in the Apostles Creed every Sunday and didn’t believe a word of it. He had somehow lost his faith at the seminary (the word means seed-bed) where he was supposed to have been equipped for ministry. He would say the Lord’s Prayer faithfully, but, because of his unbelief, the prayer never went anywhere. Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when he is trying to repent of his foul deeds prays and then says as an aside, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.”
So, what we want is a religion of the heart. Men may be fooled, but God is not.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.