Preaching from Matthew 15:10–20, I touched upon the contrast between external religious practice and internal motivation—something Jesus discussed extensively throughout his ministry. He had an uncanny ability to penetrate the hard exterior of our lives and go below the surface; to peel back the onion and get to the heart of the matter.
A Matter of the Heart
In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said . . ., but I say unto you. . .” Although murder was a forbidden external act, Jesus notes that such hatred arises from the heart. Adultery was also forbidden, yet it springs from the lust within. The way to deal with unsavory external behavior is to treat the internal health of one’s heart. This seems to be the modus operandi in all that God does.
The Old Testament story of David’s anointing by the prophet Samuel reveals God’s concern with the heart. Seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel to determine if any of them were to be king. Samuel asks Jesse if all of his sons had come before him. Jesse replies that there is one remaining, David, the youngest of the brothers, who is in the field watching over the sheep. As young David passes before Samuel the Lord’s will is made clear. David is God’s choice to be the anointed king of Israel.
This is quite a story, but it is 1 Samuel 16:7 that reflects God’s modus operandi. Samuel looked at Jesse’s son Eliab and thought that he surely looked like a fitting king, but God set him straight: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
External vs. Internal
This is the point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:10–20, “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (vs. 11). Do you realize the impact Jesus’ words had upon the Pharisees of his day? They were meticulous followers of the law, even going so far as tithing mint, dill, and cumin. The words of Jesus undercut their entire understanding of religion and what was important to God, not to mention casting doubt upon the Jewish dietary laws of Leviticus. Their emphasis was upon the external when God was focused upon the internal. No wonder Jesus called them blind guides leading the blind, and no wonder they were offended.
Jesus laid it out straight for them. They thought pleasing God was all about rules and regulations, proper handwashing, eating the right foods, performing the rituals just right, and engaging in external religious acts in an effort to please God. According to Jesus, this isn’t at all what God desires, and it certainly isn’t the essence of religion. If following God merely consists of external observances, then religion is far too easy. Abstaining from certain foods, washing your hands a certain way, or performing various rituals is much easier than dealing with the internal motivation of the heart. Which is easier, to give up pizza on a Friday night or to love your enemy from the heart?
This is the kind of religion Jesus despised, for it took the focus off of what was important to God. You can brilliantly perform façade-type religious activities and still possess a heart full of bitterness and evil thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8).
What Matters to God
Do you want to know what matters in religion—what really matters to God, and therefore, should matter to us? It is the heart—the internal motivation behind all that we do. God doesn’t seem to be too concerned with how we do things, but why we do what we do. What lies at the core of our being? What is it that we wish to do in the depth of our heart? That is what concerns God.
A husband and wife were fighting over cleaning up in the kitchen. The husband blurted out, “Okay, I will help you with the dishes,” to which the wife replied, “I don’t want you to help with the dishes, I want you to want to help with the dishes.” See the difference? One is an external act, while the other is a heart motivation.
As you think about your own motivation, what lies at the core of your being? What do you wish in your heart of hearts to do? How much of our Sunday morning church services and denominational tradition is meaningless external façade, and how much of what the church does is accomplished through pure motivations of the heart? It seems like we might have some thinking to do. I know I do! – TSW © T. S. Wise, 2020