What is true religion? There is a tendency within many religious groups to regard themselves as the one true religion. In a world of religions which all claim to be the true religion, how does one choose which one is actually the true religion? Is the true religion that one that I was born into by accident? What is true religion? Is there such a thing?
While I was away, the question of what constitutes true religion was turning over in my mind, sparked two stories:
While was visiting my brother Wesley and his family in Cape Town, my sister-in-law Marcia told me about a friend she had met at their Church. I don’t remember what the friend's name was, and so for the purposes of this story, I will simply call her Joy. Joy had been part of a very evangelical Christian church that read the Bible in a very fundamentalist way. But a major change for her happened for her fairly recently when she was admitted to hospital. She was alone, because she had no family. She was in a ward with a Muslim women (There is a fairly large Muslim community in the Cape Town area.) The family of the Muslim women would visit their family member faithfully. Over a few visits, when they discovered that Joy had no family, they began to paying attention to her on their visits, bringing her gifts of food and treats, asking her how she was doing and sharing in conversation with her.
This experience changed Joy’s views quite dramatically. She came to the conclusions that true religion was not believing exclusively in Jesus in the way that she had previously been taught, but rather that true faith and religion was about following in the way of Jesus’ goodness, love, kindness and compassion to others, as she has received from that Muslim family when she found herself in hospital. Before this experience, her faith would have taught her that Muslims were at best misguided and probably at worst, were to be regarded as worshippers of demons or the devil and therefore destined for eternal punishment. But in hospital, she had experienced them as channels of God’s kindness and compassion.
This cognitive dissonance between what she had been taught and what she had actually experienced, led her to try and find a church that would give space for this new religious insight. And so it was that she found herself finding a home in Wesley and Marcia’s Church.
The question of what constitutes true religion is a theme repeated theme across the pages of the Bible. At times it almost feels like a debate that is happening across the pages of Scripture.
In the midst of all of this debate, some of the Old Testament prophets give some interesting perspectives:
The prophet Isaiah lived around 700 BC. In Isaiah chapter 1, speaking on behalf of God, the prophet does not hold back as he criticizes the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. He speaks of them as a people in rebellion against God. He compares them to the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah from their early history. In verse 11, speaking on behalf of God, the prophet tells them how their religion has become meaningless and worthless in God’s eyes:
verse 11 ‘The multitude of your sacrifices –
what are they to me?’ says the Lord.
‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Verse 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations –
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Verse 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Why? Because Isaiah says: Their hands were full of blood, a metaphoric way of saying that they were benefiting unquestioningly from the economic and social injustices that had begun to characterise their society.
After rejecting the religious assemblies, ceremonies and prayers of the people of Judah, Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, then outlines the nature of true religion:
In verse 17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
True religion according to the prophet Isaiah is not so much about taking part in religious services and ceremonies, but rather true religion in his mind is about doing what is right, seeking justice and fairness, defending those who are oppressed, taking up the cause of orphans and pleading the case of widows. In other words, true religion is not about singing the right hymns or reciting the right creeds, true religion is about acting with integrity, kindness, compassion and generosity, especially towards the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
Living 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus faced similar problems in his time. His clashes with the Pharisees almost all revolved around the following questions: Is true religion about following the correct religious rituals and obeying the correct religious purity laws? Or is true religion living in wisdom and compassion towards one’s neighbours?
Is true religion believing the correct things about God? Or is religion living in harmony with the ways of God? And what are the ways of God?
The prophet Micah summarises it in that well known verse in Micah 6:8
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Acting justly towards others, showing kindness and mercy and walking with humility in God’s sight. Making sure that the weak and vulnerable are not neglected, exploited or defrauded or left destitute.
In the New Testament, the letter of James picks up this same theme. It follows on from the passage we read last week about listening and doing. And in these verses, James explicitly uses the phrase: true religion. It could also be translated as pure worship. The word for true or pure is the Greek word katharos and means to be clean, purified and not mixed with anything else, like gold that has been purified in the fire from any impurities. The word the NIV translates as religion is the word threskeia which refers to religious ceremonies and rituals in other words, the activities of religious worship. From these two words katharos and threskeia comes the English phrase: True Religion, or Pure and Undefiled Worship.
And what is the nature of this ‘true religion’ or this ‘pure and undefiled worship’ that James is referring to? In chapter 1 vs 27 he describes it:
“...to look after orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
These words are an echo, perhaps even a summary of the words we read earlier from Isaiah 1 verse 17
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
In closing, I wish to share a second story. It is the story of an Egyptian Doctor, Mohamed Mashally, a man who died in his 80s over two years ago in July 2020. One could say that he was a practitioner of the true religion or the pure worship as James defines it in chapter 1 verse 27. What perhaps might surprise us, is that like the family in the story I opened today’s sermon with, he too was a Muslim, which again suggests that true religion or true worship might not be the exclusive preserve of Christians:
Dr. Mohamed Mashally, was known as the “Doctor of the Poor”. He graduated from the Medical School in 1967. For over 50 years he visited the poor in his city in Egypt providing medical care to anyone who needed it regardless of background. In his modest clinic, and wearing very modest clothes, he charged only minimal rates for a consultation, and for the poor, who couldn’t afford it, he provided his medical care for free. He also began providing medicines to the poor for free after he discovered one of his patients, a mother, could not afford to feed her family and buy insulin for her son who was a diabetic a story that had ended in tragedy with the young boy dying in his arms. He never owned a car, not even a mobile phone. He walked from his house to the clinic on foot, right to the end of his life, even though he was over 80 years old.
When a wealthy businessman in the Gulf learned of his story, he is said to have given him $20,000 and also a car to get around. But after a year, upon his return to Egypt, the wealthy donor discovered that Mohamed had sold the car to help his poor patients. On another occasion, after being interviewed on TV, Dr. Mashally is said to have turned down a donation worth millions from a TV show, advising them to rather offer such donations to the poor and needy. (In the words of James, he remained unstained or uncorrupted by the world of money).
Reflecting back, Dr. Mohamed Mashally said, "After I graduated, I found out that my father sacrificed his whole life to make me a doctor." Then I promised God that I would not take a penny from the poor and live a life in the service of my neighbour whatever culture or religion he was. "
It is an inspiring story that raises the question: Is it possible that true religion is not confined to one belief system or creed? Is it possible that true religion is to be found wherever acts of selflessness, kindness, generosity and mercy can be seen, whether those acts are done by a Protestant or a Catholic, or whether they are done by a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist, or even a person who may claim to have no faith at all?
James 1:27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
May God bless you ponder these things in your own hearts as you consider what they might mean for you and as you weigh them up in your own minds?