A coach, watching his team lose a game, laments, "They're just going through the motions!" A boss, frustrated with an employee, exclaims, "He's just clocking in and checking out."
Most of us have been there: on the frustrated side and on the "checking out" side. And we all know, if we are honest with ourselves, there are times when our spiritual lives suffer because we are just going through the motions, perhaps simply keeping up appearances.
As bad as that can be, the greater danger is that we might come to a point when we think it's acceptable and understandable to be in such a state. Then we begin to think just showing up is not only enough but is a sign of right motives and holy living.
The prophet Hosea was addressing people who were going through the motions when it came to serving God. They often said the right things, but were, in fact, just keeping up appearances (see Hos 9:4). They had turned their backs on God and embraced pagan practices and idols. Hosea, anguishing over this spiritual depravity, wrote his poetic and passionate book during the final years of the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). It was a time of intense political and social tension.
As leaders sought security in political alliances, many of the people sought solace in syncretism and idolatry. Both resulted in a betrayal of the covenant, an act of infidelity that Hosea compared to the infidelity of his own wife, Gomer, who he married at God's directive (see Hos 1:2). Hosea's marriage and Gomer's infidelity represented the failing "marriage" between God and the people of Judah. Today's reading from Hosea describes the piety and love of the people as being "like a morning cloud," the dew that quickly evaporates by day. In the heat of social unrest, the fidelity and holiness of many was melting away.
"I slew them by the words of my mouth," says the Lord through the prophet, "for it is love that I desire, not sacrifice."
Jesus quoted those words some 700 years later in responding to the Pharisees who criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. His reply had an edge of sarcastic rebuke. "Go and learn the meaning of these words," Jesus said. "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
Jesus would quote the same passage from Hosea in Matthew 12 while debating with the Pharisees over the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath rest.
Both Hosea and Jesus employed hyperbole, for neither man was opposed to all sacrifices. Rather, they made the emphatic point that external sacrifice without interior humility and true repentance is worthless. "Outward sacrifice, to be genuine, must be the expression of spiritual sacrifice: 'The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit....' The prophets of the Old Covenant often denounced sacrifices that were not from the heart or not coupled with love of neighbor" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2100).
Jesus, in taking up the cross, was the perfect sacrifice by virtue of his perfection, love and total acceptance of the Father's will. He was, in the words of Paul, "handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification" (Rom 4:25).
This brings into bold relief the irony of Jesus' remark that he came to save sinners and not those who are righteous, for no one is righteous unless he believes the promises of God and is made so through the sacrifice of the Son.
Those who won't admit they are sinners cannot be made righteous; those who go through the motions will miss out on true mercy and love.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.