“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
It is interesting that a Pharisee would ask Jesus to dine with him after Jesus has denounced the wicked generation. Luke does not tell us this man's motivation. Perhaps he really liked Jesus. Perhaps he wanted a chance to trap him. Perhaps he agreed with Jesus that "this generation" was in fact very wicked, neglecting to include himself in that crowd. Clearly he followed the letter of the law, shuddering in disbelief when Jesus did not follow the ceremonial ritual for hand washing.
(Kids, don't use this as an excuse to not wash your hands. Jesus wants you to kill those germs, he just cares more about your spiritual well being than meaningless actions.)
It is a terrible thing when religious practices become an end in themselves and people neglect their hearts. The Pharisees followed the law of the Old Testament as they had interpreted it, even adding extra laws to clarify and keep them from breaking a single commandment. But they neglected justice. They neglected mercy. It is good that they did not neglect tithing, even down to their herb gardens. But this needed to be done in the context of love and worship for God and concern for their fellow man. They took the metaphoric chair of Moses (Mt 23:1-2), judging others for their behavior as Moses judged the Hebrews in the desert. (Any present day Orthodox Jewish rabbi will tell us that he holds in part the “Chair of Moses”.) And they loved to sit in the seat in the synagogue that honored those in the succession of Mosaic teaching. They enjoyed the respectful greetings given them in the marketplace. But Jesus compared them to an unmarked grave, a location that would make a person unclean without them even realizing it. Their teachings might seem like lush green grass, but beneath them was the rotting stench of decay.
It is all to easy to fall into the trap of legalism. Checklists make us feel better and prove we are on the right track. Surely certain rituals and behaviors must make us more appealing to God, more worthy of salvation. But nothing can be further from the truth.
God cares about our hearts. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus equates hate with murder, lust with sexual immorality, and divorce with adultery. As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is. It is difficult to not desire praise for accomplishments, attention for good deeds, and greetings in the marketplace. Good deeds done for the sake of earning forgiveness or to look good to a watching world are meaningless. For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isaiah 64:6).
When we allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse our hearts of greed and wickedness it can be a painful process. But as a result, our good deeds will come from clean hands and pure hearts lifted to the father.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? - Micah 6:8