Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a call for religious reality. It was not the first such call. In the Old Testament the Prophets made similar demands.
Isaiah commences and concludes his prophecy with the condemnation of their religious observances and the demand for real godliness.
So in chapter 1 we read
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or of goats.…When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plea the widows cause”(I:10-17).
And in Chapter 66 we read
He who slaughters an ox, is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dogs neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose harsh treatment for them and bring their fears upon them, because when I called no one answered, when I spoke they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight (66:3-4).
Jeremiah, Amos, David in his Psalms – the list can be multiplied of prophets who attacked and condemned religiosity and called for religious realism.
And this call for religious realism is not only in the Old Testament prophets. In the New Testament, James makes one of the great summary statements about religion when he wrote
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this; to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1:27).
God is not concerned for our observation of religious practices and symbolism – even when these are good and right things required in his law. God wants the reality of changed hearts and minds. He wants people who trust him and exhibit that trust by living his way rather than the way of the world.
As we pray to God for relief from the current drought, and as we encourage the community around us to pray for the same blessing – we must remember God’s demands for reality.
It is easy to call out for help in times of need. It is important to listen to what God says about us in our times of need. For God uses the trials and tribulations as well as the joys and privileges of life to remind us of him and to challenge us about ourselves. The drought like the bushfires and other natural disasters are great reminders to us that we are not God and not in control of God’s world.
By all means turn back to God and seek for his help. But remember to turn back to God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength – and to love your neighbour as yourself. For God requires reality in our relationship not religiosity.