Alex was excited when he got off the plane. It was his first time in the United States. Everyday of his 60 year life had been spent in Italy. It was home for him. But sometimes it’s good to leave home for a little while.
Jon and Alex have been friends for a while. A few years back, Jon was able to visit Italy. Alex took him to all of the expected places. Jon was ready to return the favor. He was just as excited to introduce his Italian friend to American culture as he was when he experienced life in Italy.
Madison Square Garden was the first stop on the tour of America. Basketball was big in Italy and Jon couldn’t wait to show Alex where it all started. It was a packed house for the Knicks and the Hawks. As usual, the Knicks lost.
As the week went on, there were more stops. All of the usual suspects on the east coast. Boston. Philadelphia. Washington D.C. Alex was overwhelmed by what he experienced. He had seen America on television shows. He had read about it in books all of his life. But now he was getting to see it, smell it and taste it for himself. His joy was evident. He still loved his home but a part of him was sad to leave Jon’s country.
As Jon saw it, Alex hadn’t seen anything yet. He was saving the best stop for the last night of the trip. The two old friends headed out for a dinner that the American knew would be unforgettable for his Italian friend. Alex knew great food. He had grown up around it. His family was in the restaurant business back in Italy. And he had already enjoyed a few American staples. Hot dogs at the Knicks game. Cheesesteak in Philadelphia. He knew that whatever food had gotten Jon so excited to share must be great.
Finally Jon and Alex arrived at their destination. Jon had already made reservations. They walked right past the crowd waiting outside. Table for two.
At the Olive Garden.
Jon couldn’t contain his excitement when the breadsticks arrived.
“This, my friend, is sure to remind you of your homeland.”
When the overpriced spaghetti came, Jon couldn’t wait for Alex’s response.
It wasn’t what he expected. Alex could not manage to eat hardly anything. His enthusiasm for Italian dining was not quite what his American friend had hoped that it would be.
On their way out, Jon interviewed Alex.
“What was wrong? Why didn’t you eat anything? Come on. You’re Italian. This is an Italian restaurant. What’s the problem?”
As nicely as he could, Alex explained himself to his American friend.
“Just because you call it Italian doesn’t make it the real deal.”
Jesus says something very similar to us.
Just because we call it religion, doesn’t make it the real deal.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4 (ESV)
There’s good religion and there is bad religion. Bad religion needs to be seen by men. It does what it does for the approval of others, not the glory of God. And, no matter how orthodox it may appear, Jesus doesn’t like it.
Genuine religion is different. It isn’t concerned with the approval of man. It doesn’t even exist to try to earn the approval of God. Rather, it exists because of God’s approval. Those who are genuinely religious pray because they love to talk to their Father and they know that they need him. They give because they know what their Father has given to them. They fast because they desire Christ more than the finest meal.
What if no one ever complimented you for your religious efforts?
No words of encouragement for that great sermon that your worked so hard on.
No comments about how angelic you sound when you pray.
No awe that you would care enough to actually fast.
No pins for 30 years of perfect attendance in Sunday School.
What if the only reward you ever received for your religious activity was a deeper understanding of Jesus and his love for you? Would that be enough for you? Or would you feel empty without the approval of man?
You can pray all you want and still miss Jesus. You can give to the poor and care more about what it does for your reputation than you care about the glory of God and the good of your neighbor. You can fast and simmer the whole time in the hopes that someone will notice your superb spirituality. You can even keep all of your religious activity private and still pat yourself on the back for keeping it private.
Jesus isn’t concerned with that kind of religion.
In his eyes, it is bad religion because it has man as its center and its objective instead of him.
Bad religion makes people fly airplanes into buildings.
Bad religion makes people knock on your door at 7:00 on Saturday mornings to tell you about Jehovah.
And bad religion makes good Southern Baptists carry on with their religious activities without Jesus.
Jesus is not concerned with your religion, no matter how faithful and passionate it may be, if your religion is not concerned with him. He must be the cause of your religion. He must be the center of your religion. He must be the reward of your religion.
Anything less is a cheap imitation of the real thing.