Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24 TNIV)
Another dangerous aspect to legalism is that it truly does look like righteousness. Every letter of the Law is obeyed. Every ritual is preformed. The proper amount of money is given to the work of the church. The problem is, it only looks like righteousness, it isn’t really righteousness.
Earlier in Matthew, during Jesus’ sermon on the mountain, He told His listeners,
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20 TNIV)
And here in Matthew 23, we see their righteousness defined:
You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin.
They went to the temple and did all the right things. They followed all of the rules. They even taught others to do the same. But these rituals were tainted by something: their lack of obedience to “the more important matters of the law.” What are these matters?
The first Jesus mentions is “justice”. The word rendered “justice” here is the Greek word “κρίσις” (krisis). This word carries with it the idea of “judgment.” These people were unwilling to pass proper judgment in relation to the Law. This is interesting because, at the same time, these individuals were adamant about shutting the door to heaven in people’s faces and keeping people from entering heaven. But they were not judging properly. They may have been passing judgment on sinners, but they were ignoring their own hypocrisy and their own sins.
The second thing Jesus mentions is “mercy.” These men refused to show compassion. They were passing judgment without compassion and therefore not passing proper judgment. They were unjust and unmerciful. They were behaving the exact opposite of the way the God they were claiming to serve would behave or even command His people to behave.
The last thing Jesus mentions is “faithfulness.” These men had no true moral conviction regarding the ways of God. They were not truly faithful to their confession of God as the only God.
To bring these ideas forward to the present, we would say that Jesus’ indictment here applies to those who pass judgment unmercifully on those who are different than them. They assume that just because someone struggles with homosexual attraction that they are a fag and going to hell. They assume that just because someone is an emergent they are a theological liberal. They assume that just because someone reads a Buddhist magazine that they are renouncing Christianity. There is no understanding and mercy in their judgment. Not only that, but it becomes more specificly a condemnation when Jesus says that these people are unfaithful. It would be similar to what Isaiah said to the people of Israel when, speaking for God, he said that the people honored God with their lips but their hearts and lives were far from Him.
Then Jesus makes an interesting closing statement. He tells these individuals,
You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Not only are these men unfaithful, unmerciful judges, but they are not concerned with anything that truly matters. They get nit-picky about stupid things. Bringing this idea to today, we could apply this to those who say that if you deny a literal 6-day creation that you deny the cross of Jesus. This is an indictment on those who spend more time condemning abortion and gay marriage than they do female genital mutilation or molestation by SBC pastors. These things are, by their actions, okay as long as your not a lesbian who has had an abortion.
All in all, the point that Jesus is making against legalism is that looking righteous doesn’t make you righteous. A true follower of Jesus’ righteousness must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees and move beyond that outward show of tithing and protesting gay marriage and abortion. It must also be tempered by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.