The Big Religion Show

In my Scripture readings this Holy Week I am ‘walking with Jesus’ in the final chapters of Matthew. These passages are not among the most enjoyable in the Gospels, to be sure. They are full of challenge, confrontation, and conflict. Today’s reading in chapter 23 are Jesus’ words of scathing condemnation for the religious leaders of His time. He did not talk about sexual scandals, nor did He mention their salaries, which are favorite targets for church critics in our time.  

He challenged their habit of ‘puttin’ on’ a big religion show. They were very, very good at it. They knew how to look holy, dress holy, and walk among ‘ordinary’ sinners without even being touched.  Many lived in awe of them, thinking that they were amazingly godly. Jesus didn’t!

These are some of the kinder things He said. “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear extra long tassels on their robes.” (Matthew 23:5, NLT)  “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” (Matthew 23:25, NLT)

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jesus concerned with these pious frauds?   

Jesus explains that their big religion show is not just ridiculous. They keep people from knowing God’s grace and power. “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you won’t let others enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and you won’t go in yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13, NLT)

Puttin’ on a show, having a religious ‘life’ that is inauthentic and mostly words, has been a sin problem for eons.  Centuries before the time of Christ Jesus, Isaiah saw it Jerusalem. The Spirit of God moved him to write this – “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  (29:13) 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught about a practice of prayer that accomplishes nothing – “babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”  (Matthew 6:7)  He plainly says that our most intimate moments with the Lord will be found in our prayer closet, not in public places. “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. … ““Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6:1, 6, The Message)

Regular practice of spiritual disciplines – worship, Scripture intake, meditation, prayer, confession, giving, service – are good. We should do these things even when we do not feel like it not because we impress God or worse, other people, but because these are a means of opening up our minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit.  

Remember that authenticity is not the same thing as spontaneity. As much as I love those moments when God’s Presence finds me and moves me, I do not wait for them to worship. However, we must take care not to just be content to go through the motions of daily worship without our heart engaged.  IF the only reason we pray, or show up at church, or talk about the Bible is to keep up appearances, we are hypocrites who offend God and look ridiculous.

Perhaps your conscience is hurting as you read this. (Mine was as I wrote it!)  You’re realizing how often you just slip into the ‘religion show.’ 

You sing songs you don’t understand or mean.
You write a tithe check to your church without praying for the ministries you support.
You open your Bible and read words you can’t remember even a minute after you put it away.
You pray prayers that fall from your lips out of habit but leave the basic issues of your heart untouched. 

Jesus reminds us that the answer is NOT just to try harder!  Curiously that is what we think we ought to do. He invites us to change our focus, to raise our eyes to Him. A first step is to admit – to yourself, to God – in real confession those areas in your faith practices where there is a yawning gap between your words and your reality.  I find that the discipline of silence is a good place to start. When I turn off the music, get on my face before the Lord, and just listen – I begin to get real.  Get honest and tell Him you’re sick of saying the same old words. 

Tell Him about the uncertainties you’re hiding inside. Confess your love for things of this world that contribute to your lack of desire for godly things. In your private prayers, how about admitting, out loud, that you would rather go golfing than to church, that you like others to serve you more than your like serving them, that Heaven seems far away and the pleasures of the moment are alluring.  Yes, it’s hard!  

“But, Jerry, I can’t admit to those things.”  Why not?  He knows your heart better than you do!  Humility and confession allow us to grow, to find the Spirit’s transformation that is inside out. 

Real faith is not a matter of doing religion better; it’s about loving Jesus, focusing on Him. He makes a wonderful promise to us about meeting us where we are.

The word from the Word is His invitation.
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20, NIV)

So, ready to be real?

At The Cross (Love Ran Red)

(a song of focus to turn our hearts to Him)

There’s a place
Where mercy reigns and never dies
There’s a place
Where streams of grace flow deep and wide
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood comes flowing down

At the cross at the cross
I surrender my life
I’m in awe of You I’m in awe of You
Where Your love ran red and my sin washed white
I owe all to You I owe all to You (Jesus)

There’s a place
Where sin and shame are powerless
Where my heart
Has peace with God and forgiveness
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood comes flowing down

Here my hope is found
Here on holy ground
Here I bow down here I bow down
Here arms open wide
Here You saved my life
Here I bow down here I bow (down)

Chris Tomlin | Ed Cash | Jonas Myrin | Matt Armstrong | Matt Redman
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