The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had watched the disciples of Jesus eating without first washing their hands…a real defilement of tradition in their eyes! So they confronted Jesus in what they believed to be a breaking of the Law. To answer them, Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13, “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.” For anytime the Good News of the Gospel is pushed aside for man-made rules, our focus changes from Jesus to religion. But remember, religion in and of itself will never save us. Nor will man-made traditions and teachings ever get us to heaven. It’s only by the blood of Jesus that we are saved…not any rule.
Everyday you see people doing what they think is the “right” thing…yes, they’re good people with good intentions…but unfortunately, they don’t have God in their world. Their life consists of works and legalism…with a mental score-sheet that they keep track of their points…thinking that they can somehow work their way to heaven. For they truly believe that a loving God would never deny a good person access to heaven. But Jesus replied to this in Matthew 7:21 when He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the Will of My Father who is in heaven.” The world has its own standard of what being a good person and doing what seems to be right is…but it sadly falls eternally short of God’s standard.
These blue cord tassels were to be a daily reminder of the Lord’s commandments and the fact that the Jews were a holy and separated people. But if we go to Matthew 23:5, Jesus is calling out the Jewish Leaders who had taken this Scripture to an excess by making their tassels extremely long in order to make a show of their “religiousness”. It’s called Legalism…and the Church over history has been really good at it. We’d rather focus on the strict and excessive conformity to the letter of the Law, than embrace grace and mercy. Or we’d rather obsess over external appearances than do the hard work of changing our hearts, minds, and attitudes. Legalism is taking God’s word to an extreme and then affixing human rules and regulations to it. Legalism lets us focus on things we can control and be proud of…the “Look at me, I’m so very religious!” But like white-washed graves, we look so nice on the outside, but hold so much decay within.
In these verses we see the spirit of the Law vs the letter of the Law. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their legalism and in doing so losing sight of the more important matters of the Law…things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The Lord always searches the heart for honesty and sincerity and will reward accordingly.