When He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile and to question Him closely on many subjects, plotting against Him to catch Him in something He might say.
He is not used to being spoken to in such a manner, so the lawyer automatically corrects Jesus. "Jesus, you are insulting us lawyers, too." And Jesus replies, "Okay, woe to you lawyers, too!" he gave three curses to the Pharisees; now he gives three curses to the lawyers. So much for the idea that Christianity should be a religion of tolerance.
In Jesus' day, a lawyer would have a somewhat similar function to our lawyers. They traveled with the Pharisees or Sadducees, understanding and following all the rules of their particular sect. They would know and memorize the Jewish scriptures as well as the multitudes of laws that had been added on to "clarify" and maintain the purity of the laws given by God. Over the course of 400 years, they had crafted the rituals, routines, and procedures of their religion and culture. It was a labyrinth of behaviors imposed upon the people as if it was the true will of God, rules so complex that you needed a lawyer for interpretation. They weighed men down with a religious burden so heavy that none could lift it. And since the system was based on ritual rather than relationship with God, they gave the people not even a finger to lift the burden. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20).
I was playing the book of Leviticus on my iPod yesterday. As I listened to all the laws about sacrifice, uncleanness, and so forth, I couldn't help but think, "No wonder they were so obsessed with following the Law. There were so many specific Laws of which to keep track." And the punishments for breaking the laws were severe, culminating in the idea that you would be unforgiven of sins if you did or did not do certain things. Just like we need lawyers today when we try to struggle through "legalese", the Jewish people needed lawyers to clarify their laws. They were the biblical scholars and theologians of the day.
Jesus accuses the lawyers of building and decorating the tombs of the prophets, whom their ancestors killed. They wanted to show that they were more pious and righteous than their ancestors. But they ignored the teaching of the prophets - teaching that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), that doing what is right is more important than sacrifice (Prov. 21:3), that God has no pleasure in the blood of bulls and goats (Is. 1:11), that the important thing is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8). And they would plot to kill the one of whom the prophets spoke, Jesus himself.
For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and those who were entering in, you hindered. Could anything worse be said of a religious leader? The world has always been full of religious liars - intentional or otherwise. As the apostle John wrote, "We know that we are children of God, and the whole world lies in the lap of the evil one." Throughout history people have allowed themselves to be rocked to sleep by false teaching, lulled into a false sense of security through rituals and misplaced faith.
Can you imagine the tension in the room? The Pharisees must have been outraged. No one talked to them that way. People graciously greeted them in the marketplace. People literally accepted their word as law. As soon as he leaves, the leaders begin to plot a way to trap Jesus in his words so they can put an end to this.
There lies in this passage a warning to beware of religions created by the world as well as rituals within Christianity. Any religion or denomination that places works above grace is false. Nothing we do is important in earning our forgiveness, not baptism, communion, or words spoken. Faith and God's grace is what it takes. And "good deeds" do nothing to earn us favor in the eyes of God. It is unmerited. Our good works will flow from a heart of thanksgiving as the Holy Spirit conforms us into the image of God.
We must also beware the danger of hindering others from entering the kingdom. We keep silent when we should share the gospel. People look at us and see a life no different from other religious or irreligious people. We allow slavery, neglect orphans and widows, disregard the poor, allow abortion, ignore sin, and go about our lives ignoring the transforming power of Christ. Let us instead brightly shine a light on the path to heaven. Let us point people to the keys for the kingdom!
The principle he is putting before us is that outward conformity to either cultural norms or Biblical commands is not what God is after. He wants our hearts. And when he has our hearts, broken and humbled over our sin, believing and resting in his promises, he has the whole person. Only then does the outward behavior have value, because it flows from an inward change. The “inside of the cup” can only be cleaned and made right by the grace of God. - Jennifer Thorn