At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2 TNIV)
Throughout my time in church, I heard no end to the comments about anybody who defended a more legalistic religious expression as a “Pharisee.” They didn’t even have to be defending the negative sort of legalism that we often associate with the term. They could simply have been saying that Christians should be doing a certain action and that said action was required and they were immediately labeled a Pharisee. Growing up in that environment, I latched on to this mentality.
And I called people Pharisees.
I denounced all forms of legalism, good and bad.
And I think, all this time, I have been using the wrong term.
My wife and I were reading our evening Scripture and commentary the other night, and we came across this little tidbit of information:
Originally, for the Jew, the Law meant two things: it meant, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and, second, the first five books of the Old Testament, or, as they are called, the Pentateuch. Now it is true that the Pentateuch contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions; but, in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which a man must interpret and apply for himself. For long the Jews were content with that. But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the Scribes. They were not content with great moral principles; they had what can only be called a passion for definition. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life.
(William Barclay. The Daily Bible Study Series: The Gospel of Mark [Revised Edition]. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press. 1975. 163-164)
I wonder if maybe, rather than Pharisees, we shouldn’t be calling out the Scribes instead. I’m not saying that there is nothing wrong with religious tattle-tales or those who think they can enforce man-made religious rules and regulations. Wherever we see sin, we must confront it and seek its eradication. But I think we have been focusing on the wrong people in our attempts to weed out sinful legalism.
I am beginning to think that the Pharisees were just products of their environment. They really had no other laws they could enforce than those brought out by the Scribes. Granted, they could have defended truth. They could have taken the moral high road. And they are not without fault. But ultimately it is the Scribes who were the problem.
For starters, we have the old view of things versus, in relation to history, the new view. In the old view, the Law contained a more generalized set of rules. Yes, there were specifics, but in reality a law does not apply in every context. The sense of a particular law is what matters more than the literal reading. This is how the Jews prior to the days of Jesus viewed things. The Law consisted in “great moral principles which a man must interpret and apply for himself.”
As time progressed, though, this view began to change. Those in power wanted a more specific manner in which to apply and interpret the Law. There was a large body of oral tradition, so this was adopted as binding and new oral law was created. The Scribes were those who kept track of this. And they aided in the creation of these oral laws as well. These men “were not content with great moral principles…They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life.”
Then, we have the issue of Jesus. Jesus comes along, and, in the tradition of the Rabbis, interprets the Law for the people and gives them an oral law. But His oral law is drastically different from that of the religious establishment. In a lot of cases, His law contradicts their law. So, on the one hand, you have the religious establishment trying to enforce their way of doing things, and, on the other, you have Jesus simply telling people to interpret the written Law through the lens of charity. In most cases, love actually contradicts legalism.
Lastly, we have what Jesus was actually saying when He gave His oral teachings. Jesus is actually calling for a radical redefinition of what it means to obey the Law. Under the Kingdom of God, obedience consists simply in loving God and loving other people. Under the way of the establishment, obedience consists in things like washing your hands in the right order and making sure your cups are clean. Jesus is, in essence, calling for a return to the old ways when it comes to interpreting and applying the Law. His message was similar to that of Jeremiah in this regard:
Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16a ESV)
These are the men and women who we usually label “Pharisees.” These people come along and seek to micro-manage our very lives and existence. They are not content with a general moral principle that you and I must seek the truth about for our own lives. These men want to apply that principle to all of us in every way.
But these men and women are not Pharisees. They are Scribes. I’m not sure what this does to our understanding of those imposing legalism on us, but it should at least give us some pause.