Not all obedience is obedience.
If you have children, that statement is often easy to validate. Children will begrudgingly say, “sorry” when they’ve sinned, with little evident demonstrations of remorse or repentance. Children will fulfill a task (e.g., cleaning, chores, homework), all the while grumbling about it, so the job is done, but with all the wrong motives.
Jesus also demonstrated that not all obedience is truly obedience. But he did not use the examples of children to illustrate His point. He used the examples of adults (Matt. 15). And even more strikingly, he used the examples of the religious and spiritual leaders of Israel — the Pharisees and scribes (v. 1).
Jesus used two illustrations to make three points about disobedient obedience. The first example was about the (adult) religious leader’s relationship with his parents (vv. 4-6). They disobeyed the command to honor parents by suggesting that even though they were withholding financial care for their parents, it was out of a greater duty to honor and give to the Lord. But Jesus said that one’s parents (and God) are not honored if the parents are not demonstrably cared for and loved (vv. 5-6). It is not obedience to God if parents are dishonored.
In the second illustration, Jesus addressed the topic of worship (something that should have particularly penetrated the consciences of the Pharisees, as religious leaders). Jesus said that no matter how much they worshipped or how “well” they worshipped, it was not worship if there was no joy in Him or if they did not desire Him (vv. 7-8). Furthermore, it was not worship if man’s ideas and theories were exalted above the doctrine and truth of God (v. 9).
In other words, obedience is always a heart issue. It’s relatively easy to conform externally, but do our internal motives and desires also conform to our actions. What is most important about us is what is inside us (vv. 10, 17-20).
It is not obedience if our heart is not desiring the obedience. And it is obedience when our hearts love and desire and yearn to do the obedient action.