Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside. It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!
For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!
But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)
Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.
So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!
This is the subject of the encounter Jesus had with some Pharisees and lawyers when they reclined to eat together. Imagine inviting Jesus to a black tie event with the movers and shakers that you know, and this is how the night unfolds:
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash [ceremonially cleanse himself] before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” (Luke 11:37-44 ESV) [emphasis added]
I could say much about this encounter, but the words that struck me are highlighted. The Pharisees did all the rights things. They had their religious etiquette down pat. Jesus cuts through that façade with the double-edged sword of his word – right to the heart.
Indeed, the heart is the real issue!
The Pharisees were experts and very skilled in the observance of every religious ritual, but they neglected justice and the love of God. Religious ritual doesn’t test where we are with God so much as how we act toward others. Anyone can do religious ritual. It isn’t a good measure for our connection with God.
The real measure is in the heart. Give as alms those things that are within…. Give your heart to God. Let God examine and test it, as David prayed:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
God will do that anyway! He knows the thoughts and intents of your heart. Go ahead and give it to Him. You have nothing else to lose!
The fruit of our hearts is reflected not in our ritual observances, but in how we treat others. This is because everyone is made in God’s image. Every person is of infinite value to God. Whatever you to do the least of people, you do to God. (Matt. 25:40)
In another encounter, Jesus was seen eating with many tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw this, they challenged the disciples, saying, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:10-11) Of course, Jesus heard them, and so he responded,
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)
When Jesus said these things, he was echoing the words of the prophet, Hosea:
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
God doesn’t want our ritual sacrifices. God wants our hearts. He wants our acknowledgment. He wants the alms that we give from within. He wants a relationship with us. He wants to be our Father.
If we feel that have to offer sacrifices and work to earn God’s favor, we are looking for a different kind of relationship. The relationship of someone who works to earn favor is like that of a worker or one who is bargaining for goods.
God isn’t looking for workers or shoppers bargaining for a deal. He wants children. What He offers is a gift. He offers us an inheritance that a Father gives His children.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes [trusts] in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…. (Romans 4:4-5)
God wants the alms that are from within, a humble and contrite heart, willing and receptive to what God has to offer. He wants people who recognize and appreciate God’s image in other people.