Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ – who he is and what he has done – the heart of Christian practice is the imitation of Jesus and the living out of the Bible’s teachings. Therefore, any person convinced of the power and grace of Jesus is compelled to ask: how did Jesus live and what did he value? How does the Bible depict love for him in action? What is true religion for a follower of Jesus?
The Bible’s resounding answer from start to finish is summed up in something Jesus said when he quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice” here refers to the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem temple for the atonement of sin and thanksgiving to God, a practice constantly being perverted by legalistic Jews who tried to use it to earn God’s grace (which is a contradiction in terms) and to impress fellow religious people, all at the cost of the kind of “sacrifice” God wanted most from his people: mercy to the needy.
Perhaps Jesus had Isaiah chapter 58 in the back of his mind when he quoted this verse from Hosea. Isaiah 58 is another passage of the Bible which highlights the difference between showy religion and true service to God. It is a lyrical and powerful chapter, and I encourage you to read the entire thing.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6-7
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. 58:3-4
You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2