Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead mens bones.
- Matthew 23:27
Why is it that the people who were the most religious when Jesus was on earth were the ones He criticized the most? Not the woman taken in adultery, not the usual outcasts of society, not even the thief on the cross faced as much rebuke as the Scribes and Pharisees, who should have been on their way to the best seats in Heaven.
I fast twice a week, I give alms to the poor, Im not a robber like this dishonest tax collector..., said the Pharisee in one of Jesus parables. Yet Jesus wasnt at all impressed by the upright man, but He praised the one who said, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:9-14).
Its easy to understand why the religious leaders didnt care for Jesus.
Because the law (Ten Commandments) had been written in broad principles - dont kill, dont lie, dont steal; keep the Sabbath Day holy; etc. - the Scribes made it their duty to enlarge each commandment into a specific set of rules the people were supposed to follow.
Then, in a related, self-imposed task, the Pharisees dedicated their lives to following every rule the Scribes wrote down. Considering those rules eventually filled 50 handwritten volumes, a lifetime was hardly long enough to put all that minutiae into practice.
For example, the Scribes decreed it was all right to write one letter of the alphabet on the Sabbath - but not two. Healing was not allowed on that day, either, though you could take steps to keep the patient from getting worse. There were other rules about how far you could carry a child or how many paces you could walk on the Sabbath Day.
Jesus horrified these religious experts by openly breaking several of their rules. On one Sabbath Day alone He healed a lame man and allowed His disciples to pick corn to eat (Matthew 12) - all this after He announced that He had come to fulfill the law, not destroy it (Matthew 5:17). No wonder they were confused.
Their confusion, however, shouldnt have been about Jesus reaction to their voluminous laws, but about why they had attached such a negative interpretation to the law in the first place.
Imagine how they felt when Jesus told them the entire law could be reduced to only two phrases: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind... and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
If they accepted His interpretation, then all those years of arduous work were for nothing. To believe Jesus they would have to admit a lifetime of error, and that was too high a price to pay.
What they didnt understand is that Jesus approach to the law was motivated by love, not condemnation. Even in broad principles, the commandments were to be an outgrowth of their love for God and each other, not because they were afraid of the consequences.
For all their piety the Scribes and Pharisees were guilty of at least three things:
Their good deeds and law-abiding lifestyles were motivated by the need to draw attention to themselves, not by a desire to serve God;
their teachings placed unbearable burdens on the people they presumed to instruct; and,
their interpretation of the law came not from a desire to be like God, but to refashion God into a tyrannical taskmaster no one, not even they, could please.
We dont like reading the harsh words Jesus used to describe the Pharisees - vipers, hypocrites, etc. Our own culture teaches us to be more tolerant than that, to judge not that you be not judged.
But Jesus was God. His judgment isnt based on insecurity or indecision as ours is. He also looks past our outward actions to the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12), and it is by those actions that we are judged.
By this, Jesus said, shall all men know you are my disciples, if you have love one toward another (John 13:35).
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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