What is the essence of true religion? What, in the end, constitutes authentic discipleship? There is a lot of tension within and among the churches today about precisely that question.
For some, religion is all about proper identity, boundaries, doctrine, morality, liturgy, laws, and rubrics. The anxiety then is about measuring up, about being faithful to a tradition.
For others, religion means justice and concern for the poor. The anxiety then is always about proper sensitivity to every structure and action that impacts the poor.
Finally, for some, religion means proper interiority, inner peace, harmony with the earth and with others, forgiveness, being big of heart, and having a personal, intimate relationship with God.
Who is right? In some ways, they all are.
When we look at the development of Judaism, which gave us Jesus, we see that their understanding of religion went through three phases: Deuteronomy, Prophecy, and Wisdom.
Deuteronomy: When the Jewish people first began to form into a religious community, their religious practices (and anxieties) were very much concerned with establishing an unique identity, having proper boundaries, adhering to a certain moral code, and observing, and quite rigorously too, a huge number of rubrics. And this did make for a certain clarity as to who was in and who was out, who belonged and who did not, who was faithful and who was not.
Prophecy: But that notion of religion was eventually challenged. After a time, prophets came along who looked at their religious community and, in the name of true religion, demanded a different focus. Simply put, they began to say: “God cares less about our religious observance than about the poor!” True religion, for them, was about caring for the poor. This became their mantra: The quality of your faith is judged by the quality of justice in the land, and the quality of justice in the land is judged by how the poor, the most vulnerable in society, are faring. Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.
Wisdom: But the Jewish scriptures do not end with the prophets, eventually something else developed. Another group of religious leaders and teachers came along who, while not discounting the value of proper boundaries and morality or care for the poor, brought another insistence, namely, compassion, the need for a huge, generous heart that can embrace differences. True religion then became compassion, understanding, a wide, generous heart.
Where does Jesus land? He ratifies all of these.
On the one hand, he makes it clear that proper identity, teaching, morality, doctrine, and liturgical practices are not negotiable items that may or may not form an integral part of religion. He warns, clearly and strongly, not to be cavalier about the commandments, the law, community practices, the tradition.
However Jesus is also clear, as were the great Jewish prophets, that, at a point, religion is about how we care for the poor, pure and simple. There is perhaps no more frightening text in scripture than Jesus’ teaching on the last judgement in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 28. He tells that, on the last day, we will be judged by God on one basis: Did we care for the poor? Did we give bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked? Notice that there are no orthodoxy tests, no creedal formula to recite, no catechetical requirements to measure up to, nor even questions about private morality, only the question of how we treated the poor.
But there is still a further strand of teaching in Jesus that challenges even beyond the requirement of caring for the poor. He tells us, “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.” True religion, for Jesus, is, at a point, about the size and quality of our hearts, about how wide or narrow they are, about how mellow or bitter they are, about how forgiving or angry they are, and about how much they can imitate God’s love which goes out warmly and equally to all, to the bad as well as the good. The final challenge of Jesus is for each of us to have a heart that, like the father of the prodigal son and the older brother, can embrace both the weakness of one and the anger of the other. God’s heart is not a ghetto, neither is heaven, and for us to go to heaven we need to have hearts that are not ghettos.
Perhaps this perspective can help us sort through some of the tensions we live in today as different groups claim one or the other of these emphases as the core of religion. Boundaries, identity, morality, liturgy, rubrics, are important, as is a non-negotiable commitment to the poor.
But, in the end, all of these have to be shaped by a heart that radiates God’s all-embracing compassion, understanding, forgiveness, gentleness, warmth, and non-discriminating love. Otherwise it is an easy and logical step to bitterness, hatred, and violence – all done in the name of God and true religion.