Lent Reflection – Do I mistake my religious observance for a life that pleases God?

7 min. to read.

Today is the 41st day of Lent, Holy Monday. Following Palm Sunday yesterday, now we accompany Jesus through the final week of his life. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations in response.

The reading today is Mark 11:12-23, Jesus’ dramatic act in the temple and his odd interaction with a fig tree.

Picture Jesus standing in the busy temple court, cracking a whip through the air. Merchants, animal handlers, money changers, and gawkers all dive out of the way. Pilgrims in the temple for the Passover season can finally see their way through to the place of prayer. Minor priestly functionaries stand gaping at the impudence of this country rabbi who dares interfere in the temple’s workings. This is one of the most iconic scenes in Jesus’ life, familiar even to those outside the church.

All four gospels record this dramatic moment. John places it early; a sign act meant to define the direction of Jesus’ ministry and his relationship to the temple system. Matthew, Mark and Luke place it within Holy Week, following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the head of a royal procession. The Triumphal entry sealed Jesus’ fate with Roman power unwilling to tolerate challengers. In the same way, the Cleansing of the Temple sealed Jesus’ fate with the religious leadership desperate to preserve the status quo and secure its privileged position.

Zahnd points to an interesting literary choice in Mark and Matthew. In those two gospels, the temple scene is placed next to a strange little interaction between Jesus and a fig tree. In Matthew, the fig tree episode happens immediately after the cleansing of the temple. In Mark, the connection is even more direct. Jesus interacts with the fig tree both before and after the event, almost as if framing the temple cleansing.

On the way to the temple, Jesus passes this tree. At a distance, it was in full leaf, looking healthy, but closer examination showed that the fig tree had no fruit on it. Seeing this, Jesus spoke to the tree, “May no one ever eat from you again!” The next morning, after the temple scene, Jesus and the disciples passed this tree again. It had withered from the roots.

Jesus inspected the fig tree for fruit. When he found none, he cursed it. Drawing from this moment and the way it frames the temple scene in Mark’s gospel, Zahnd calls Jesus’ trip to the temple another inspection for fruit. The temple was both literally and symbolically the center of religion for Jesus’ people. The daily, weekly, and annual rituals and observances held there marked out the shape of their faith and practice. Those rituals and observances had meaning. They were important, but they were not the thing that mattered most.

Religion, as a practice, serves to provide structure to the pursuit of God and the life of the Spirit. This practice is meant to be formational. It should change us, altering how we see God, ourselves, others, and thus how we live in the world. However, with its visible rituals, observances, and cultural standards, religion has a nearly universal failing. This was true for the religion of Jesus’ time and people. It’s true of every human religion before or since. It is a crisis of epidemic scale within the modern Christian religious community.

That failing? It is possible to perform the rituals, study and recite the teachings, participate in the culture, even love the religion itself, and not be changed. It is possible to be very religious by every observable measurement and still live in ways that explicitly ignore God’s instruction and even contradict God’s character. Even worse, it’s possible to live this way while justifying oneself as a good person expressly because of all that religious activity.

When Jesus performed this “fruit inspection” at the temple, he was pointing out all the time, energy, and focus given to the trappings of religion, even while the heart of the religion was being violated. It was a fig tree with no fruit, unable to sustain a hungry soul, pointless. Jesus was not alone in this judgment. He stood in a long line of prophets before him who dramatically spoke and enacted the same message.

Consider Jeremiah, speaking for God: “Of what use to me is frankincense…Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.” Why would he say this? Because the people’s “ears are closed,” and they were “greedy for unjust gain.” Their sacrifices brought no transformation, only self-justification. People could see themselves as good religious people, even though the pursuit of material gain defined their lives.

Then listen to the words of Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf to the people: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” How could God say this? Didn’t God establish the sacrificial system in question? Simple. Even though the people were faithful in their observance of the religious rituals, they neglected the heart of the matter. “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” If the people wanted their offerings and rituals to mean something, they needed to live differently. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Here’s one more among many. The prophet Amos delivered a similar message, strongly worded, with a clear expectation from God. This one perhaps ought to resonate sharply for modern Evangelical Christians who so deeply love our worship bands and praise music. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The rituals of religion can be life-giving, connecting us to a heritage of wisdom and faith that grounds us in the turbulence of life. They can remind us of both the character of God and the life God made us for. The practices of religion, however, can also be a trap for us. We can do these things and see ourselves as righteous just because of our faithful religious practice, but if those practices are not accompanied by transformation, they are a barren fig tree to us.

If we are faithful in our religious observance but do not live with generous love toward those around us, our religion is hypocrisy. That old word comes from the ancient Greek theater, evoking the masks actors used so they could appear as one character or another. Our sacrifices and observances, our rituals and church attendance, our songs of worship all can end up being nothing more than pretty masks. We appear to be faithful people who follow God when, in the practical dealings of life, we ignore God’s invitation to love and justice.

Listen to the words of the prophets. What makes our religious practice meaningful and genuine is not the intensity of our worship, the regularity of our attendance, or the meticulous care with which we observe the rules or rituals. What makes our religious practice meaningful is when it is enlivened by a life of mercy, justice, and generosity.

“What does the Lord require of you?” asked Micah, another of the ancient prophets standing in Jesus’ tradition. “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” These are the fruits of true religion.

Lent invites us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. This way is life.

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