The word of the day is “better.” Our secular society tucks religion away in a separate compartment. Our citizens can worship as they choose. But their faith is not supposed to have any bearing outside the sphere of their private “spirituality.” But in our reading of Proverbs 21:3-21, the wise sage writes, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (NKJV vs. 3).
To apply this proverb to our time, let’s suppose that righteousness and justice are matters that apply to our life in society. And let’s consider that sacrifices have to do with religious practices. If that is the case, then righteousness and justice are matters of public concern. They apply to our life in society. And yet, the sage teaches that the Almighty prefers them over religious practice.
Does Religion Belong in the Public Square?
If that is the case, then today’s proverb opposes the basic notions of secularism. If we accept the separation of private religious life with public life, then we might think that our religious obligations are limited to our relationship to God. We participate in the rituals and activities of the church, say our prayers, and read our Bible and that is as far as our duty to God goes. Once we enter the public sphere, we live under a different set of norms and behaviors.
But our key proverb represents a long tradition of the Old Testament that challenges these ideas. That line of thinking says that God is vitally interested in our life in society. In fact, the Almighty is most concerned about how we treat our neighbor not merely “in church” but in the world at large.
The Tradition of God’s Concern for Righteousness in Society
This theme goes as far back as the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, and the Prophet Samuel. The Lord had ordered Saul to annihilate the pagan Amalekites and their possessions. But Saul saved the best of the livestock from destruction. His pretext was that the people wanted to sacrifice these prize animals to the Lord. However, the Prophet Samuel refused to accept Saul’s excuse. He informed Saul that the Lord had rejected his reign. Then he said, “Hearing [of God’s Word] is better than a good sacrifice and obedience than the fat of rams” ( OSB Samuel 15:22).
Time after time, when the Chosen People sinned against the Lord, they tried to offer sacrifices to cover their sin. But the Lord spurned their attempts to appease Him. The most ancient literary Prophet Hosea railed against the “cursing, lying, murder, theft, and adultery” of his time. He complained that there was “no truth or mercy, or knowledge of God in the land” (OSB Hosea 4:1). Yet, the people pretended to honor God with sacrifices. God responded through the Prophet saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than whole burnt offerings” (OSB Hosea 6:6).
More Examples from the Prophets
Likewise, in another time of sinfulness, the Prophet Isaiah said that the Lord “did not desire the blood of bulls and he-goats” (Isaiah 1:11). Rather He wills that we turn from evil and do good;” “redeem the wrong;” and “defend the orphans and justify the widow” (OSB Isaiah 1:16-17).
Furthermore, the Prophet Jeremiah charged that the people had turned away from the Lord and no longer listened to the Word of God. Therefore, the Prophet spoke for God, saying, “Your whole burnt offerings are not acceptable, and your sacrifices are not sweet to Me” (OSB Jeremiah 6:20). Then too, the Psalmist asked, “Will I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Rather than offer insincere sacrifices, the Almighty instructed that His people “offer a sacrifice of praise, pay their vows, and pray to Him in time of trouble (OSB Psalm 50: 13-15).
Perfunctory Religion Does Not Appease God
In summary, the tradition that today’s proverb represents teaches that the empty formalism of ritual sacrifices will not make up for sin. Perfunctory religious practices will not appease God. Whether one is in the public square or private sphere, God desires righteousness, justice, mercy, obedience, and lovingkindness.
To sin against these qualities of holiness is to sin against the Almighty, who is the source of these godly virtues. If we fail to exercise them, we transgress against God’s holy will. This offense demands sacrifice, but not of the blood of animals. But the offering that is the sacrifice of repentance as the Psalmist says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise” (NKJV 51:17).
It is folly to think that God is awake only during the holy hours of church services and that He is asleep during the business hours of industry and labor. We show our ignorance of God’s will when we assume that the principles and values that guide our private lives do not apply to the conduct of our public life. And we fail to grow in godliness when we concentrate on our inner life to the neglect of the outward needs of our neighbor and the ways of justice, truth, and peace.
In the Trisagion Prayers, we invoke the Spirit of God who is “present everywhere and fills all things.” Thus we believe that the Spirit works in all and through all. And so we affirm what Paul declared in Philippians: It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
But where and when are we to will and do what God desires? Surely the Spirit is present in times and places other than worship. Surely the Spirit is active in and through more of us than the ministers and ministries of the church? Surely the spirit works in us wherever we are.
If all this is true, let us ask the Spirit to guide and empower us to integrate our family life with our church life, our work with our worship, our life in society with our life in the community of faith and love. Then we will realize the wisdom that the qualities of goodness are better than the practices of formal piety that do not come from the heart.