Worshipers or devotees?

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. There is nothing in that line that piques anyone’s interest today because there is nothing great or inferior about riding a donkey. Most people today would pay a good sum of money just to get a ride! But what follows this simple action is what really makes it sound absurd. People shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and put cloaks before the donkey (Mark 11:9). They waved leafy branches and blood and danced (Luke 19:36-37). Now this is a typical welcome for a king and no king enters his city riding on a donkey! So what exactly was going on here?

Christians around the world observe Palm Sunday one week before Easter. Palm Sunday marks the entrance to Holy Week, a week that highlights the fundamental beliefs and fundamental principles of the Christian faith. Holy Week is unlike any other week in the Christian calendar. It is not marked with big noise and amusement park. In fact, it brings up the 40 days of Lent, which is a period of fasting, penance, almsgiving and, above all, repentance and change. Holy Week reminds each Christian of the reason for his faith and of his existence as a Christian. It brings them to an awareness of who God is and reminds them of what He has done and, above all, challenges them to accept who they are before God.

The people who gathered to meet Jesus in Jerusalem were highly devoted. They recognized him as king even though he did not wear imperial robes and jewels and did not come riding on a mighty horse with an imposing army. They had heard of his fame; they had heard of the wonders he had done with the touch of his hands or the words of his mouth; they heard of his anointed preaching… They knew… and they heard… Perhaps they had not seen it with their own eyes; they had not experienced it firsthand but believed in the talk. This is the typical character of a devotee. The devotee believes and even acts according to the belief, but he is not intimately connected with the person he worships or praises.

A worshiper, on the other hand, is not so busy with the words and actions of the person as with the person himself! This is the fundamental difference. A devotee is excited by words and actions; the worshiper has eyes only for the person; all words and actions are just a bonus. It is interesting to note that Jesus preferred the latter to the former. “But the hour is coming, and is here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, because the Father seeks these to worship him” (John 4:23). Jesus hardly cared about the large number of people who were simply devoted to him. His focus was on gathering people who would worship God, the Father. He emphasized worship and not simply devotion. Not that he killed the devotion altogether. He was careful not to let the devotion remain purely peripheral or superficial. He always invited people to go deeper and become worshipers. Take the example where he healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Only one of the ten turned to praise God and thank Jesus for what he had done. Seeing this, Jesus commented: “Were not ten clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was not one of them found to return and praise God…?” (verses 17-18). This incident shows very clearly that Jesus was not overly impressed with devotion alone. Perhaps the other nine went around the field proclaiming the miracle that Jesus had worked in their lives. But that is nothing compared to the man who turned and worshiped the Lord.

Much of the religion is centered around devotion and thus very often ends up making all of its adherents devotees. Very little attention is paid to true worship. There is a difficulty in drawing a clear line between devotion and worship. The best way to judge is by examining the effect it has on a person’s life and behavior. A devotee does the things that he thinks or is told is pleasing to God. Therefore, they are often lost in fulfilling rituals and keeping traditional edicts and practices. The worshipers keep their minds fixed on God and exude an aura of holiness. The focus of all your thoughts, words, and actions is to praise God.

Palm Sunday offers us the opportunity to introspect and discover our nature before God. Are we just like the crowd that gathered around Jesus to show him his devotion? Is God someone whom we must please through our rituals, fasts, observances and penances? If that is the case, then we are simply devotees of God. God does not impact our lives very much. We are quite happy living our own lives and doing the things that we are told or have come to know are pleasing to Him. There is no real connection there. But if we really care about God and care, I don’t mean just respecting or honoring Him in the place of worship, but seriously wanting to have a relationship with Him, then I think we will enter the realm of worship. When we desire more than to please God by actually desiring God Himself, we progress from being devout to being true worshipers. These are the people the Lord wants. He is not interested in devotion to the mother. He wants worship. Are we ready to give it to him?

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