There was no ambiguity to Jesus’ instructions. Not then, not now. In His sermon on the hillside surrounded by His disciples the multitude, He made it clear: “But I warn you—unless your [righteousness] is greater than that of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, you can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven at all! . . . So if you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and suddenly remember that a friend has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar and go and apologize and be reconciled to him, and then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:20, 24, TLB). From Jesus’ perspective, it was not the outward acts of worship that were important but rather the condition of one’s heart.
It is so easy for us to lose sight of that all-important truth. Also important was Jesus’ rejection of the practices of the religious leaders. As Bible scholar Albert Barnes writes in his Notes on the Bible, “The Pharisees were intent only on the external act in worship. They looked not at all to the internal state of the mind. If a man conformed to the external rites of religion, however much envy, and malice, and secret hatred he might have, they thought he was doing well. Our Saviour taught a different doctrine. It was of more consequence to have the heart right than to perform the outward act.” In other words, we cannot hide behind our religious practices – going to church, reading the Bible, praying and meditating, etc – while ignoring the state of our relationship with others. God is not impressed by our outward practices; He is more interested in the state of our hearts. The Psalmist puts it this way, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17, KJV). Elsewhere, “O Lord, who may lodge [as a guest] in Your tent? Who may dwell [continually] on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity and strength of character, and works righteousness, and speaks and holds truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:1-2, AMP).
One interesting aspect of Jesus’ teaching concerns who takes the initiative to reconcile. It is not the offender, but the worshipper. This is significant because fractured relationships affect our worship. While the religious leaders focused on the external acts of worship, Jesus laid down a standard that not only exceeded the standards of religion but which was necessary to get into the Kingdom of Heaven (see Matthew 6:20). Albert Barnes observes, “If, therefore, says [Jesus], a man has gone so far as to bring his gift to the very altar, and should remember that anyone had anything against him, it was his duty there to leave his offering and go and be reconciled. While a difference of this nature existed, his offering could not be acceptable. He was not to wait until the offended brother should come to him; he was to go and seek him out, and be reconciled. So now the worship of God will not be acceptable, however well performed externally, until we are at peace with those that we have injured.”
For some of us, that is an incredibly difficult thing to do. We want to believe and often believe that our outward acts of worship and our piousness are what put us in right standing with God. However, Jesus slammed the door shut on that idea. Our worship, no matter how sincere, is not acceptable to God until we are reconciled with those whom we remember have something against us. It is not a mere suggestion but a duty, an obligation. Barnes continues, “He that comes to worship his Maker filled with malice, and hatred, and envy, and at war with his brethren, is a hypocritical worshipper, and must meet with God’s displeasure. God is not deceived, and He will not be mocked.” As difficult as it often is to take the first step, we are reminded and challenged by the words of the prophet Samuel as spoken to Saul: “Has the Lord as much pleasure in your burnt offerings and sacrifices as in your obedience? Obedience is far better than sacrifice. He is much more interested in your listening to Him than in your offering the fat of rams to Him” (1 Samuel 15:22, TLB).
In the end, it is all about our obedience. Jesus demands that we go beyond, exceed, the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees in our worship practices. It is not about the externals; it is about the condition of our hearts towards God and just as important, toward others. So, how is YOUR worship?