1) Jesus shows that religion is all about rules.
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
The Pharisees’ first accusation against Jesus involved picking of grains on the Sabbath. First of all, we should note that picking grains was not unlawful. Taking grains without paying for it sounds like a crime, but back then, the grains that were growing in the fringe areas were purposely left there so that widows and the poor and foreigners would have something to eat. It was a gracious provision that God included in the law to meet the needs of the less fortunate. So what Jesus and the disciples were doing was not a crime. It was not unlawful.
The point of contention is the fact that this act was done on the Sabbath and this act constituted work. The Pharisees were looking at creation and how God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. And they took a good, Biblical concept of Sabbath rest and they distorted it into 39 types of work that they were prohibited from doing on the Sabbath. Activities like carrying and burning and writing and cooking, and washing, knotting, untying, plowing and planting and reaping, 39 types of thou shalt not do on the Sabbath. Today, modern day Pharisees would say, thou shalt not facebook on the Sabbath, thou shalt not text, thou shalt not turn on thy laptop, thou shalt not do your problem set due tomorrow. That might be a great thing for some of you.
Religion is all about rules.
2) Religious people are more interested in self than others.
9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.
Not only does Jesus pick grains on the Sabbath, he heals a man with a shriveled hand. And you would think, what’s the problem? Healing, that’s a great thing. Why wouldn’t anyone who has the power to help a person in need use that power to help, even if the day happened to fall on the Sabbath? It’s just being decent. A good decent human being.
For me, Sunday is not Sabbath. It’s not a day of rest. I’m working right now. So I often like to take it slower on another day of the week, like Monday. I keep my meetings to a minimum on those days when I need to get recharged. What if there is an emergency and someone is in the hospital and I get a call on my day off? Will I say, I know you are dying from a massive head wound, but I’m off today. You’ll have to call me back tomorrow? That would be ridiculous. In fact, it would be utterly unloving and sinful.
But this is how the religious approach works. As long as I am fed spiritually and I hear the Word of God and I feel good about myself and I feel close to God, that’s all that matters. Forget about all the shriveled hand people around me who are broken and needy. Even spiritually, we can be very self-centered.
3) Religious people think God wants them to sacrifice and they have no idea what mercy is.
7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
We like to sacrifice to God because that’s something we can do within our own power. Sacrificing time and money is within our power to do. We like the feeling of being in control when we can give money to God and we can sacrifice time and show up on Sundays to worship him and we can attend Christian activities. These are good things, important things, don’t get me wrong, but these are also things that are not that hard to do.
We can change our external behavior. But what about our hearts? When someone wrongs you, what is your natural response? When someone cuts you off on the freeway, what comes out? Is it PG13? When your boss diminishes you, what do you mutter under your breath? When a supposed friend snubs you, what do you say to him or her later on? What’s your reaction in those situations? Is it “forget you,” is it vengeance, even hatred?
Religious people can be the worst culprits. How much damage has been done in the name of religion? When you wrong a highly religious person, they might be a leader who has sacrificed several decades for the ministry, but you’d be shocked at how they treat their enemies? You probably met some religious people who are incredibly sacrificial but at the same time, they have terrible characters. Like when someone wrongs them, the amount of venom that comes out is shocking, it’s worse than a non-Christian. This should give us a clue. Sacrifice alone doesn’t change you at the core. Sacrifice is good, but God is after a heart change.
What kind of heart is merciful when wronged? Only a heart that has been shown mercy can extend mercy toward others.
These Pharisees are experts in sacrificing. They tithe, they go to the temple regularly, they fast, they pray, they know Scripture backwards and forward, but look at their hearts.
10 … a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
They are using the shriveled hand man as an object to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing. What kind of heart is this? Seeing people as objects. They failed to see this shriveled hand man as a real person with real brokenness. Or, v14–
14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
Now these Pharisees have murder in their hearts. This is the result when you do something to a religious person that they don’t like. They want to kill you. This relates with point #4.
4) Religious people bear bad fruit.
33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
You will see this spiritual principle throughout Scripture. Good tree yields good fruit. And bad tree yields bad fruit. Why? Because everything grows from the root. The root has to be good in order for the outgrowth, the fruit, to be good.
Jesus is encouraging the religious Pharisees, look at your conduct, look at your speech, look at what you are saying and how you are treating people. What do these things reveal about the root? What does this reveal about your heart? Our conduct, esp. our speech, reveals character. How you treat others and what you say to others and how you say it to others is a reflection of your heart.
Why is a religious approach utterly incapable of saving us? This leads us back to the passage we read at the outset.
43 “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
5) Religious people deal with sin through human effort.
Religion is all human effort. I have a problem. A sin, a flaw, a defect, an addiction, a deficiency. A religious person says, you got to beat the problem out of you. You got to be super disciplined. You have to pray more and read the Bible more. Everything rides on your performance. If you are good at the religious life, like the Pharisees, you feel superior. If you are performing poorly, then you feel inferior, completely unworthy of God’s favor. This is approaching God on our terms, through our efforts. It is man’s attempt to deal with sin without a Savior.
Through our efforts, we can get an evil spirit to come out of a man. We can conquer some of our behavioral sins. But what happens? Seven other spirits more wicked come in and you are worse off than before. This is why highly religious people are often the nastiest, most unmerciful people with the worst characters. It follows this spiritual principle. For the Pharisees, spiritually speaking, they would have been better off if they had never stepped foot into a synagogue and never been exposed to Scripture. By doing religion their way, they ended up worse off than before.