I cringe when I read the “woes” Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and lawyers in Luke 11. Take, for example, when He says, “But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of mint, rue, and every kind of herb, and you bypass justice and love for God. These things you should have done without neglecting the other” (Luke 11:42 HCSB). These Pharisees did a good job of putting their religiosity on display. They faithfully obeyed the “tithing law” with their material possessions, but they did not provide justice to the downtrodden nor did they love God.
Jesus went to on to pronounce the following woe on the experts in the law, “Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (Luke 11:52). These men had everything necessary to help everyone know and practice true worship, but they distorted it (or kept it to themselves) so the people were kept in darkness. But why was Jesus so harsh on these leaders? It makes me uncomfortable to hear how sharply He rebuked them.
As I was preparing for an upcoming sermon, I began reading a passage in Malachi that helped clear things up. Malachai was the last of the OT prophets and his oracle ended up being the last word God spoke to His people for 400 years. (The angel Gabriel broke that silence with the announcement of the birth of John.) In the short book of Malachi we find out that God is upset with Israel because they no longer revered his name, they offered unhealthy animals as sacrifices to him, and began committing spiritual adultery with other Gods, among other things. In chapter 3, the prophet tells the people that God willing day send the Messiah to Israel. This Messenger “will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3).
Jesus was doing His job faithfully when He confronted the religious leaders in Israel. The Father sent Him as “a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye” (Malachi 3:2) to purify the leaders so the people might know and worship the Lord in truth.
Religious hypocrisy is a terrible plague that can befall any society. Let us humbly seek to know the Lord as He is, turn away from unrighteousness, and serve and worship Him the way He prescribes in His Word.