The problem with legalism is that it doesn’t feel like sin. It feels like holiness. It feels like true commitment and genuine devotion. It feels like something God should be pleased with. That’s why religious people are especially prone to it. Their perceived sense of spiritual goodness and moral superiority become an obstacle to receiving God’s grace (as well as giving it to others). Besides, they don’t really think they need it—at least not as much as other people do. In Jesus’s mind, however, legalism is just an ugly sin to be avoided.
Surprisingly, Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. They were constantly at odds throughout the Gospels. In the end, it wasn’t the “general issue sinners” who put Jesus on the cross; it was the legalists—those overly zealous, hyper-critical religious folks who looked down on everybody else. Later, the Apostle Paul had a similar experience. The legalists dogged his every step, distorted his message of grace, and then eventually beheaded him.
Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has shared lavish grace and gentle correction with those at his table. This meal, however, shows us something different. Jesus unleashes his anger on the religious leaders of the first century, and it’s not pleasant. In fact, the encounter is downright confrontational. We might say Jesus “burned the meal” this time. But why? What made Christ so angry that he would issue six “woes” to the religious leaders he was breaking bread with? The passage tells us that Jesus gets “steamed” when:
- we value external ceremonies over internal cleansing. (37-41)
- our religious traditions become more important than God’s priorities. (42)
- we’re driven more by the praise of others than by the praise of God. (43)
- we lead others away from God and nobody seems to realize it. (44)
- we raise people’s moral standards but offer no help to meet them. (45-46)
- we claim to honor the very people whose message we violate. (47-51)
- we obscure the beauty of God’s revelation with our own distortions of it. (52)
Sadly, the Pharisees didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as jolly good fellows who kept the law; therefore, God should accept them. To make matters worse, they imposed their “fence laws” (i.e., their own tedious additions and traditions to God’s simple laws) on everybody else—which just made life drudgery for everyone. They then looked down on people who didn’t keep the fence laws like they did, thus making them feel inferior to the religious elite.
That’s why Jesus saves his most stinging rebukes for the hyper-religious. They, more than anybody else, misrepresent the gracious heart of God. Even today, Pharisees offer a religion of “DO!” while Jesus offers a relationship of “DONE!” That’s why he announced from his cross, “It is finished.” Jesus paid it all, and now he gives salvation full and free to all who know they need his grace.
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