It was the religious people who gave Jesus fits. Jesus showed great compassion to those who were stuck in sin. Jesus loved the unlovable, not by overlooking their bad stuff but by showing them the path to forgiveness, restoration and freedom. But the religious people, the self-righteous, legalistic, judgmental people? Jesus blasted them with harsh criticism. Because He loved them, too, and they were traveling a far more dangerous road. When you are in trouble, it is far more dangerous if you either don’t realize it, or pretend that you are not.
After being challenged one day because His disciples were not strictly following the religious ritual of hand washing before eating, Jesus turned on His accusers. He pointed out how they used religious tradition to thwart the real purposes of God. (See Matthew 15:1-20). He said:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”” (Matthew 15:7-9)
When people try to make themselves righteous, they do so by following religious rules. The problem with that approach is that, inevitably, they begin to keep score, becoming proud and looking down on others. When people try to make themselves righteous, they become self-righteous.
Much of the time, religious rules are designed and followed to make a person look good to others. Instead of expressing genuine love for God, rule-followers say, “Look at me, people; I’m religious, I’m better than you…” Sometimes when people say things in a way that sounds religious, they do it for the same motive. But God says, when people “honor Me with their lips, but not their hearts” they are “far from Me.” Their worship does not cause them to draw close. No matter how religious it sounds, their worship has no real effect. It is “in vain,” which means it is empty.
God’s Word is given to us with the purpose of drawing us into a living and loving relationship with Him. You don’t form that kind of relationship with anyone by following rules and keeping score. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with most religion. It’s why religion doesn’t work.
But relationship does. You want to draw close to God? Stop being religious, and get close to Jesus.
Quotes: The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.