Two different passages from my morning quiet time came together today in an interesting way.
The first comes from 1 Samuel 15. Saul has been sent by God to enact punishment on the Amalekites. This punishment dates back to an episode in Exodus 17 as Israel was leaving Israel and was attacked by the Amalekites. God had promised to eventually wipe them from human history. As part of that punishment, Saul is sent to “utterly destroy all that they have.” Bypassing the argument of why would God command the destruction of the entire community (man,woman, child, animal) what is important about the passage is that Saul does not obey the commands of the Lord. When Samuel comes to meet him after battle he discovers that Saul has spared Agag, the king of Amalek, and the best of the sheep and cattle. Saul claims the animals have been spared in order to make sacrifices to God; which seems a noble reason, but Samuel is unimpressed. Instead, Samuel says, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:22-23) The point was made, while sacrifices and religious ritual are a good thing, what is more important is obeying God. God is more concerned with our obedience in life than that we make the right sacrifices.
The second passage was Psalm 15. The Psalm begins with a simple question, “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent or live on your sacred hill?” The Psalmist answers by describing a righteous life; one whose walk is blameless, who doesn’t slander others or speak evil, one who tells the truth always, one who lends money to the poor without interest, and has no place for evil people. It then ends with the reminder, “Whoever does these things will never be shaken.” What is interesting is that the Psalmist doesn’t mention going to church or making the correct sacrifices. Instead, it is about living a righteous life, one who lives out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and other examples of ethical living. The Psalmist describes one who is living as Christ, not just worshiping correctly.
These two passages came together in a strange way for me today. There are many times in discussions of church and especially what happens on Sunday morning when the community is gathered in which the discussion eventually revolves around what is and what is not allowed. Who is allowed to speak: men, women, believers, non-believers? How should praise be conducted: acapella, with a piano, with an acoustic guitar, with a full rock band? What elements should be included: weekly communion, sermon, prayers, singing? We all find answers to these questions in different ways. We are influenced by various faith traditions. We are influenced by our parents and mentors. We are even influenced by the culture around us (although at times we fail to admit it). We search scripture, and depending on our preconceived notions about scripture, we find answers to these questions. Often the answers we come up with don’t agree with each other because we are approaching them from different starting points. The truth is, we all read scripture within a frame of reference and we will never all see it the same.
What struck me today is that perhaps the entire question is wrong. I do believe God is concerned with how we praise. Clearly, ritual is described in detail in the Old Testament, and even in the New Testament there are references to what should happen when the church gathers (although I might argue these references are not as clear as we like to believe at times). However, it seems God is more concerned with how we live and whether we are obeying God with our lives. Are we keeping the commandments in day-to-day living? Are we living a righteous life? Are we concerned about the poor? Are we telling the truth at all times? Are we men and women of integrity? Can people tell from the way that we talk that we are followers of God?
In the past, we have spent so much time trying to make sure “church” was right that we have neglected to make sure our lives were right. We’ve made the right sacrifices, but we haven’t always lived righteous lives. We got church right, but in doing so we forgot to obey God in everything we do. While I don’t think we should throw all the rules out when we gather as a community, I do think the rules probably don’t matter as much as we think they do. When it comes to judgment day, I don’t think God is going to ask, did you get church right? Instead, God will probably ask, when I was hungry, did you feed me and when I was thirsty did you give me something to drink? The ritual is nice. Obedience, however, is even better.