"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 men's bones."
-- Matthew 23:27
Why is it that those 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 in 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, and I'm not a robber like this dishonest tax collector," claimed the Pharisee in one of Jesus' parables. Yet Jesus wasn't nearly as impressed with the upright man as he was with the decadent tax collector he heard praying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:9-14).
Because the law (Commandments) had been written in broad principles -- don't kill, don't lie, don't steal, etc. -- the Pharisees 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-appointed task, the Pharisees dedicated their lives to following every rule the record-keeping 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 expanded law decreed it was OK to write one letter of the alphabet on the Sabbath, but not two. Healing was not allowed that day, either, although you could take steps to keep the patient from getting worse. There were also 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 many of their rules. 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 he had come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it (Matthew 5:17). No wonder they were confused. Yet in Jesus' eyes the confusion shouldn't have been over his 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 said 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 this interpretation of the law, then all their arduous work had been for nothing and they would have to admit to a lifetime of error. That was too high a price to pay.
The Pharisees failed to understand 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 just rules to obey for fear of the consequences.
For all their piety the religious leaders were guilty of at least three things:
Their law-abiding lifestyles were motivated by the need to draw attention to themselves, not a desire to obey God.
Their teachings placed unbearable burdens on the people they presumed to instruct.
Their interpretation of the law was not to make themselves more like God, but to refashion God into a tyrannical taskmaster which no one, not even they, could please.
We don't like reading the harsh words Jesus used to describe the Pharisees -- vipers, hypocrites, etc. Our culture teaches us to be more tolerant than that, to "judge not that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1).
But Jesus is God, and his judgment isn't based on insecurity, indecision, or the culture of the day as ours is. He 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.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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