One of the most obvious consequences of legalism is hypocrisy. In the case of the passage quoted above, Jesus is dealing with a spiritual hypocrisy. These men look wonderful on the outside, but inside they are still full of sin. They don’t “do” anything bad, but everything they do is tainted by the fact that they are full of “greed” and “self-indulgence.”
This passage is a bit more bluntly put than some of the earlier attacks on the legalistic tendencies of the law teachers and the Pharisees. Probably because this has some of the furthest-reaching implications. It is also probably the inspiration for the later-added passage, placed at the beginning of Matthew 23, that reads,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and make long prayers just for show. This is why you will receive a harsher punishment. (Matthew 23:14 HCSB)
What Jesus is getting at here, in both of these passages, is that these men are greedy and only out for themselves. Everything they do is to make a profit. They are greedy. They don’t care. If an old widow owes taxes or payment to the temple for something, they ruthlessly seek to get it back, even to the destruction of that woman’s life if she absolutely doesn’t have it.
And while they do these things, they stand before the people and put on a show of holiness. No one is the wiser about what is going on behind closed doors. And if those they are exploiting speak out, they face dire consequences. The outside is clean, but the inside is a disaster in the eyes of God.
This is why you will receive a harsher punishment.
Because of the way that these religious men treat the less fortunate, they face a greater condemnation than others. God is very clear about how He feels about the poor. According to Jesus, it is the poor who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. And yet these men treat the poor children of God as sub-human. And God doesn’t like it when you mess with His family. So they receive a harsher punishment because they have directly hurt God’s family intentionally.
But Jesus doesn’t leave them without hope this time. He tells them,
First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean.
He offers them the opportunity to repent and change their ways. And He offers the modern legalist that same opportunity as well.