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Jesus was frequently critical of the Pharisees, and it was with members of the Pharisaical party that He seemingly had the most interpersonal clashes. So obvious is this fact that most followers of Christ rightly understand that they need to be careful not to fall into the same spiritual traps that the Pharisees had fallen into lest we incur the same condemnation. Yet at the same time, when asked what the Pharisees were doing wrong, there are a large number of individuals who seem to supply a different answer than that supplied by Jesus, which is something of a problem if we are hoping to avoid the same pitfalls.
Take for instance the frequently cited claim make that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their “legalism.” Beyond the problem that “legalism” is a nebulous sort of term which is defined differently by different people, allowing the definer to condemn that which he is against whist allowing that which he is practicing, there is the added difficulty that Jesus never used such a term, and absolutely none of the condemnations of Jesus against the Pharisees derided them for following God’s Law to the letter. To the contrary, it was Jesus who insisted that the Word of God could not be broken (cf. John 10: 35), who spoke concerning keeping even the “jots and tittles” of the Law, (cf. Matthew 5: 18), and who claimed of Himself that he always did those things pleasing to the Father (cf. John 8: 29).
However so ingrained is the idea that frequently Jesus’ actual message is lost. For instance, there are quite a few who have some sort of idea that Jesus chided the Pharisees for being so petty as to tithe of their herb plants, their “mint and dill and cumin.” The assumption of many is that God was not so small as to be pleased with such nicety of details. Yet the actual quote of Jesus conveys almost the exact opposite message. Jesus specifically said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Matthew 23: 23; ESV).” Notice the phrase, “these you ought to have done,” in reference to the tithing of the herbs. Jesus was not saying such petty tithing was wrong. What He was teaching was that such exactness over herb plants was insufficient in and of itself when other parts of the law were being ignored.
God repeatedly told men that He desires men trying to follow the letter of His law. He told Joshua, for instance, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:7-8; ESV).”
The primary problem with the Pharisees was not their strict adherence to God’s Laws; the problem Jesus observed was the opposite: they were not following everything God said to do. They claimed obedience, but they were hypocritical in such claims, for they had neglected the “weightier matters;” such little things as justice, mercy and faithfulness. They had an appearance of godliness, but were denying its true power (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5) by refusing to love their neighbor as themselves. Thus, Jesus oft repeated condemnation of them was not that they were legalists, rather, He pointedly called them “hypocrites,” which was and is a much worse thing.
God, who judges the hearts of men, wants us to keep His laws, but He wants us to do so sincerely, loving those Laws not for the sake of Law itself, but for the sake of Love… love of Him and love of our fellow man, knowing that it is love which is the ultimate fulfillment of the Law (cf. Romans 13:8-10). Likewise, the Law, in all things, kept fully and properly, leads us into a fuller understanding of what Love means. God gave us His word because He loves us. If we try to keep that same Word without and apart from Love, we are doomed to follow in the steps of the Pharisees, a path that we most certainly do not want to travel, for it does not lead where we want to go (cf. Matthew 23: 13-15).
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.
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