The word “religion” occurs only five times in our English Bibles (NIV) – and then, only in the New Testament.
So what is a “religion”?
It is fundamentally a philosophy of belief by which one engages in a relationship with deity. The practice of religion tells you a lot about the deity involved, but religious practitioners seldom reflect on that – a point well made in chapter twenty-three.
After debating with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and experts in the law, Jesus turns to address their religion – a faith bearing only scant semblance to that required by God in the Old Testament. In their devotion to God, they do their religion to be seen, respected and honored by their peers – rather than to honor and worship God. They make their own words inconsequential, as opposed to the word of their heavenly Father which is of total consequence. They pick and choose which commands to obey, neglecting the most important for the most convenient. They pay more attention to perception than substance and they align themselves with the traditions of their forefathers ignoring the short comings of those very ancestors.
This “woe” section of Matthew is a warning to all who claim the Christian faith: it may not be faithfully practiced unless it is practiced faithfully, from the heart, in response to God, giving oneself totally to the will of the one who made all things. If we are not going to do this, religion, any religion but especially ours, is but a sham and not worth the time and effort. Some religion is not better than none.