We have generally imbibed the idea that God finds the praise of his people quite irresistible. We have framed Him as someone who pines for our praise. Perhaps to a lesser degree, but hardly less falsely, we have imbibed the idea that God prioritizes our offerings greatly. The prophet Amos (in chapter 5) provides some helpful feedback.
21 “I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
22 I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
23 Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.
The truth is, unless all our offerings and praise to God overflow into righteous living and building a just society, God has no use for the offerings and praise. This is the bane of religious life today – the fact that we purport to worship God with so much sacrificial fervor, but still go on to live selfish lives that produce an unjust and uncaring society.
Jesus took the religious elite in Israel to task on this very issue. Addressing the Scribes (experts in religious law who hand-copied scripture) and Pharisees, He said, “…you give a tenth (tithe) of your mint and dill and cumin [focusing on minor matters], and have neglected the weightier [more important moral and spiritual] provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness;…” Matthew 23:23 AMP.
The religion that God honours is not the insular, institutional raft of rites, and rituals learned by rote, but that transformational encounter and connection with the transcendental that fuels the desire to continue to work for the redemption and flourishing of creation. James puts it in more pointed terms, “Pure and unblemished religion [as it is expressed in outward acts] in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit and look after the fatherless and the widows in their distress, and to keep oneself uncontaminated by the [secular] world.” – James 1:27
The ultimate test of our relationship with God is not the fervour of our worship music – a good thing in itself – but as Jesus said, whether we showed kindness to the least of his brothers. In the end, our judgment is going to be about quite practical things: did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless? Did you work for a more just society? Someone might ask, isn’t this just trying to gain salvation by works? No, it is not. It is providing proof that you have been saved. The new life that we are given at salvation (by grace alone), can only be known by the kind of fruit that it produces. “By their fruit, you shall know them.”