What is true religion?


The Collect for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost gives the best synopsis of what the lessons for the Sunday call for: God is “the author and giver of all good things” which are the love of God, true religion, goodness and good works. The First Lesson (Sirach 10:12-18, or Proverbs 25:6-7) is all about humility. Humility in acknowledging God because “the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord”. Also, “do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great”.

How about “true religion”? What is it?

It is interesting to note that the word “religion” appears only five or six times in the Bible – depending on which translation you follow. In comparison, compassion is mentioned more than 50 times and love – depending on translation –  between 500 and 700 times.

True religion has very little to do with statements of faith, creeds or doctrines, or worship forms and practices. As James defines it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). It is active.

That is precisely the emphasis of the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16) and the Gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14). True religion is action in relationship with others, outside oneself. The Epistle urges: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured”. This is compassion, not simply in feelings or emotions but in action.

In the Gospel Jesus teaches, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…” Reach out to the stranger, in other words, to those outside one’s social class.

That is very challenging, is it not? It is one thing to serve a hot meal to the poor and the needy. It is quite different to sit at the table and have a banquet with them. And yet, that is what the Gospel is all about. It is challenging, discomforting, unraveling. It is a call to move from the comfort zone and engage with those outside the social group.