Most Christians assume that the religious leaders that Jesus encountered were practising a works-based religion. They were trying to satisfy God’s righteous standards by obeying the law. This view is misleading. The law is not a tool for proving righteousness. God had different purposes for giving the law.

Jesus actually criticised the religious leaders for a number of different reasons. We need to understand them, because we are in danger of falling into the same mistakes.

Burdonsome Law

A key problem that Jesus challenged was that the religious leaders had made the law into a burden. God had given the law to bless the people he had rescued. It was not a covenant of works. His main purpose was to provide them with spiritual protection and to allow sinful people to live together in relative peace.

God gave the sabbath to allow people to get the rest they needed. He rested, because rest is good. The teachers of the law had turned the sabbath into a burden, by giving them lots of rules to obey. This was unnecessary. All of us know how to rest. We know when are resting. We don’t need rules to help us know how to rest.

This was the point Jesus made when he healed the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-16). Her spine was so bent that she could not stand up straight. But it also meant that she could not rest, because the pain always remained. She could not even lie down flat and rest.

Jesus healed her to set her free from the bondage of the devil. He also freed her to enjoy a Sabbath rest for the first time in decades. She could lie down without pain.

Jesus called the synagogue leader a hypocrite (Luke 13:15) because he wanted to keep her in pain and unable to rest, in order to keep his sabbath rules. He had lost touch with the purpose of resting.

Den of Thieves

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he accused the temple leaders of turning it from a House of Prayer into a Den of Thieves (Matt 21:12-14).

My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.
We should think about what Jesus meant when he said that the temple had become a Den of Thieves. We usually assume that the people selling stuff and changing money were charging exorbitant prices, but that was not the problem. They were charging stiff prices, but they could only charge what the market would bear. No one was forced to buy from them. People chose to buy in the temple for their own convenience. They could have purchased their offering before they arrived at the temple, or changed their money with other merchants. So, the people that Jesus threw out were technically not thieves.

The problem was that the temple system was shifting income and wealth away from the ordinary people. They were under pressure to pay for building the temple that Herod had built by making offerings that they could not afford. The temple was a great tourist attraction, so merchants and innkeepers prospered, but the poor people were being pressured into paying for it.

This was not how the law was meant to work. Under the law, money and wealth should have been flowing to the poor from the rich.

The temple itself had become a den of thieves because it was depriving the ordinary people of income and pushing them into poverty. This was the opposite of what the law required.

Temple Tax

When put under pressure, Peter said that Jesus paid the temple tax, without checking with Jesus first (Matt 17:24-27).

Jesus asked who the kings of the world collected taxes from to pay for their palaces and armies. They don’t collect taxes from their sons, but get wealth from others.

When God wanted a tabernacle, he allowed the Israelites to plunder the Egyptians of their gold and jewellery (Ex 12:35-36). This meant that when the Israelites needed to give an offering to build it, God had already provided them with gifts to give. The wealth needed to build the tabernacle was indirectly provided by the Egyptians who had enslaved the Israelites.

This is how Herod’s temple in Jerusalem should have been paid for. If God had wanted a temple there, he would have provided the wealth from the nations. He did not expect the poor people of Israel to pay for it.

A temple tax was not specified by the law of Moses. It was a tax imposed on ordinary people by the religious leaders of Israel. In the law of Moses, all payments were voluntary. Tithing was voluntary giving to support the priests, Levites and the poor. It was not a tax.

The temple tax was an immoral imposition on the ordinary people of Israel, who could not afford it. It was not a requirement of the law.

Although it was not a requirement of the law, Jesus paid the tax to avoid creating unnecessary offence. If he made a big issue of refusing to pay, he would get distracted from proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

However, to demonstrate that God would have paid for the temple if he wanted it to be built, Jesus allowed God to provide the money for his donation. Peter caught a fish in the lake, which contained a coin that would cover both his and Peter’s tax. This proved that God could provide the wealth needed to build the temple. This action exposed the lack of the faith of the religious leaders who had resorted to a compulsory tax pay for the temple.

Taxes are the world’s way. The religious leaders were using the ways of the world to pay for God’s house. That is illogical. Jesus challenged their lack of faith by showing that God could provide what he needed for his house.

Widows Offering

Mark records a warning that Jesus gave against the teachers of the law.

Watch out for the teachers of the law… They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely (Mark 38,40).
According to the Law of Moses, the widows should be supported by their families and the tithes of their neighbours. This was not happening in Israel during Jesus' time. Instead, wealth was flowing away from the widows and other poor people towards the religious leaders.

We often miss the connection, but the next incident explains how widow's houses were being devoured. Jesus sat down in the temple, and watched the people putting money into the temple treasury.

Sitting across from the temple treasury, he watched how the crowd dropped money into the treasury. Many rich people threw in large sums. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two tiny coins worth very little (Mark 12:41-42).
The people were giving money to pay for the cost of building Herod’s temple. They had been taught that God would bless them, if they contributed to the temple. Jesus compared the people giving.
They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on (Mark 12:44).
We assume that Jesus was honouring the widow’s generosity, but Jesus does not actually say that. Rather he points out that she gave all that she had to live on.

Is this what God wanted? Did he need the widow’s coins that would have kept her from starving? Did she need to starve, so that God could have a physical house to dwell in?

When God wanted a tabernacle, he enabled the plunder of the Egyptians, so the people could give the wealth needed to build it. The people did not have to starve to provide a dwelling place for God, because he paid for it himself.

God did not want the widow's two coins. She needed them to live on, and God wanted her to have enough to eat. She gave them to the temple, because she was under moral pressure from the false teaching of the teachers of the law. They were teaching that donations to the temple were a requirement of the law of Moses. That was not correct. The Law required that money should be given to widows by their families and their neighbours.

God would have been happier if some of the wealth being put into the temple treasury had been given to the support of the widows and the poor as the Law required. He was not that interested in funding another tourist attraction for the Roman Empire.

The widow got into poverty to pay for a temple that God no longer needed (because Jesus had come to earth and he would send the Holy Spirit to live in his followers). This was an example of the religious leaders devouring widow’s houses.

Jesus Woes

Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for trying to earn righteousness by keeping the law. He was concerned that they were leading the children of Israel astray by their teaching, and particularly by the way that they lived.

Jesus criticised the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for the following failures. (The codes refer to the number of the woe in either Matthew or Luke).

Stephen

Stephen criticised the Jewish leaders for refusing to obey God after he had rescued them. He accused his listeners of the same sin (Acts 7).

Paul

Before his conversion, the main thing that Paul relied on for being right with God was his birth as an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin. His circumcision on the eighth day confirmed that he belonged to the people of God.

I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness in the law, becoming blameless (Phil 3:4-6).
His confidence came from his birth as a Hebrew.

In regard to the law, he was a Pharisee with a zeal for keeping the law, albeit in a selective way. He does not claim to be perfectly righteous. Rather, he claims to be becoming blameless. He was working on keeping the law, but had not fully achieved this goal. However, not being perfectly blameless, did not keep him from the blessings promised by the covenant with Moses.