Some of those first-century Jews preferred to demonstrate their orthodoxy by scrupulous practice of ritual. Circumcision was very important. Observing Sabbath was important. They also used the special fast days and festivals as a means of separating themselves from the world. When some of them became Christ-followers, they brought the same scruples with them.
Unfortunately, things haven't changed much in our time. We have a tendency to use ritual and certain religious behavior as a line of demarcation between those who are "in" and those who are "out." But I think if there is anything that should separate us from the world, it should be something that actually includes the world: our compassion for others. Jesus makes such a distinction in Matthew 26 when he tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. Those rejected by God are those who reject other people. Those accepted by God are those who love and care for others.
This isn’t new teaching. Isaiah said much the same in Isaiah 58. Ritual must never trump love and compassion. Listen to Isaiah’s words:
Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near to them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.We get so caught up in getting ritual right, don’t we? Judah knew her rituals and how to act religious. They knew their Bibles! But they exploited their employees, they were divided and fought with each other, they ignored the needs of the hungry, hurting and oppressed. And that really bothers me—because sometimes I wonder if Isaiah is talking to me. If you were to look at me you might say: Hey he’s really religious, he knows his Bible, he sings the right songs, he does all the right rituals—but do I care for the poor? Do I help the oppressed and down trodden? Do I do all I can to protect those who cannot protect themselves?
I think it interesting in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful.” He does not say, "blessed are the orthodox" or "blessed are the evangelicals" or "blessed are those who use the LXX version of the Bible", or “blessed are those who show some acts of mercy.”
None of those things. "Blessed are the merciful."
And the merciful are not just merciful by some natural disposition. They are the people who are first spiritually bankrupt (poor in spirit) to the point it breaks their hearts (those who mourn). They become open to a change of character (the meek). And they allow God's mercy to fill them up.
Somehow mercy must be the characteristic that separates us from others. Somehow the Spirit of Jesus is supposed to be so filling us we are filled up with mercy so it overflows into the lives of others. Can I say I am filled with mercy? Sometimes I wonder.
One thing I know: God expects his people to be filled with care and concern for the oppressed, the hurting, the crushed and the poor. We can do the ritual. We can perform rituals flawlessly, we can go to the right places, do the right things, and listen to the right people—but if we are not changed into merciful people—it’s all a farce. God isn’t concerned so much with our fasting—nothing wrong with that discipline. But the kind of fasting God prefers—demands—is mercy:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
Father, I’m not a good person. I need you more than anything. Create in me your heart of mercy! Don’t let me be satisfied with some acts of mercy—make me merciful like you are merciful! Let the thing distinguishing me from the world be the very thing that makes me embrace the world: a heart filled with your mercy.