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No bull! Hypocrisy and true religion

May 31, 2023
I enjoyed the opportunity to study with Dr. Bruce Metzger, Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. In addition to writing dozens of books, Metzger was on the committee that produced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and later became chair of the committee which produced the New Revised Standard Version. In class, Dr. Metzger was telling stories about how language changed between the versions and shared this example. In the Revised Standard Version, Psalm 50:9 read “I will accept no bull from your house.” Consider the humor that floated around the translators as they teased about God telling a person who might be trying to inflate his or her own goodness “Cut the bull! I will accept no bull from your house.” Or from a person piling high excuses as he or she attempts to justify to God his or her behavior, with the Divine responding “That sounds like a pile of bull.” So the New Revised Standard Version translated it this way: “I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.”

“Cut the bull” is, ironically, not far off from what God appears to be saying, which is that God does not want a pile of sacrifices, religious practices, or some other non-God-like activity committed in the name of God. The prophet Hosea (6:6) told of God saying to those who saw faithfulness as animal sacrifices “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” No bull. Faithfulness to God, then, had deteriorated into placing religious practices as the pathway into God’s presence. No, says God. It is not about the practices, for what God desires is not the practices but steadfast love. The message could not be clearer and sounds a warning for those of us today who desire to seek an encounter with the Divine: it’s not about practices, but rather, steadfast love for God and for neighbor (the two Great Commandments, Mark 12:28-31). 

Amos (5:21, 24) put it even more strongly as he wrote of God speaking: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” But “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice then was interpreted as how you treat people. And righteousness can also mean right relationships. To God, how you treat people and seeking the right relationships with others is what God desires, much more than religious practices. No bull. True religion is much more about justice, mercy, and faith than ecclesiastical practices.

From the Psalms, from the prophets, from non-canonical sources, and from Jesus we learn what God values most. What matters is justice, mercy, and faith. What counts is the steadfast love of God and actively doing something to help those in need. That is true religion.

Isaiah encountered the same legalism when religion was interpreted as conforming to rites and rituals. He put it bluntly: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:4). Something different is needed… a different understanding of faithfulness. So, what is needed? Isaiah answers in the form of a question (58:6-7, 9): “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer.”

To Isaiah, true faithfulness to God leads to service, especially to those on the margin and to those with the least. This sounds like a calling to care for all people… emphasize the word “all”… and a grand warning to religious folks and their leaders who seem so “anti” many different kinds of people who are different from themselves. The clarion invitation to approaching the Divine feels insultingly rejected by those who define their religion as opposed to Mexicans, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women, the poor, the disabled, Native Americans, Blacks, or anyone not like them. That’s not justice, and I imagine Isaiah might say to them… such “anti” behavior you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Don’t pretend that this behavior is central to your faith. Cut the bull.

One of my former neighbors and faculty colleagues at Bangor Theological Seminary, Burton Throckmorton, cites in his Gospel Parallels a verse from the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazaraeans which tells of a man who said to Jesus “I’ve kept the commandments.” Jesus responded: “How can you say, I have fulfilled the law and the prophets, when it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; and look: many of your neighbors… are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which is given to them?”[i] While this exchange is not in the canonical Scriptures, it certainly sounds like something Jesus would have taught and rings true to what he did say in other places (Matthew 25:31-46). In other words, cut the bull, because what God favors is how well you tend to those in need.

And so, from Psalm 50:9, from the prophets, from non-canonical sources, and from Jesus we learn what God values most. What matters is justice, mercy, and faith. What counts is the steadfast love of God and actively doing something to help those in need. That is true religion. Not sacrifices. Not religious practices. Not anti-anybody behavior. No bull!

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. Gospel Parallels:  A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, Fifth Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992, p. 145.

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