Actually, at the end of each session when our panel of three compared notes, we had all picked out the same three or four that distinguished themselves above the others: pianists who played with feeling; who made the melody sound like someone singing; who understood how to shape phrases, not just separate them; who had the musical ear and technical ability to voice their chords; students who played the non-melody hand so far in the background it was as if it were in another room; who knew the difference between a Mozart forte and a Beethoven forte; who understood that rubato meant a proportionate time-stretching like the lettering on an inflated balloon, not just a rush followed by a drag. In short, the winners were those who played not only with perfect mechanics, but with artistry as well—they put their hearts into it.
God’s people seem to have had a problem with that for a long time. The prophets were constantly reminding them that while God expected absolute obedience, form worship was not acceptable. If perfect mechanics were all that mattered, he could have created a world full of robots to fill the bill. I hate, I despise your feasts and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies, God told Israel. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts, Amos 5:21,22. Why? Because it was a mechanical following of ritual. All during their “worship” they were saying, When will the new moon be gone that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small and the shekel great, dealing falsely with the balances of deceit; that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the wheat, 8:5,6. Their religion did not affect their hearts and certainly not their everyday lives.
Jesus dealt with their descendants, not only by blood, but in attitude. Were the Pharisees right to require exact obedience to the Law? Jesus said they were: The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. All things whatsoever they bid you, these things do, Matt 23:2,3. He even praised what we might consider petty exactitude: you tithe mint, anise, and cumin…these things you ought to have done…Matt 23:23. But like their ancestors, their heart was not in it. Hear Jesus’ whole indictment: Woe to you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, for you tithe mint, anise, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith; but these things you ought to have done, and not left the other undone.
Correct mechanics are important. A lot of folks in the Bible learned that the hard way. But our hearts are more important, according to Jesus. It is easier to just go down a list and do what we are told than it is to monitor our hearts and keep them in line—but God has never had much truck with laziness either. I didn’t give out any prizes for mechanical playing those during those competition weekends. What makes us think God will give them out for mechanical worship?
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, and ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8