When we think we’ve found exceptions to Jesus’s expectations.

Popular culture, especially popular Christian culture, uses the word Pharisee as a synonym for legalist. That’s what we presume the Pharisees’ problem was: They overdid it on God’s commands. They had all these additional rules they insisted people follow, and it meant they not only missed the point of all the commands they meant to uphold, but all the grace.

Thing is, Jesus calls them hypocrites.

Legalists are many things. Like graceless, unloving, impatient, unkind, dispassionate towards people ’cause all their passion is for their doctrines. But hypocrite means someone who’s pretending to be what they’re not. And for the most part, legalists truly are legalistic. They’re not faking anything: They really do nitpick commands all the way down to the most unreasonable details. They really do judge people harshly on these details. And even though many can rightly be accused of holding people to standards they themselves don’t follow, many of ’em do follow their own standards: “I don’t have any trouble memorizing an entire bible chapter a day. So what’s your problem? Looks to me like rebelliousness.” I mean, yeah they’re quick to judge and kinda heartless, but often they do have integrity—which ain’t hypocrisy.

So why did Jesus call Pharisees hypocrites? Because some Pharisees were legalists. And the rest—the majority—were not. But they pretended to be. They actually were hypocrites.

We assume Pharisees were legalist because they had a ton of customs and rules they added to the bible. We still have most of them; they were collected into the Mishna, which is the core of the Talmud, one of the two main books of rabbinic Judaism. (The other’s the Tanakh, which we call the Old Testament.) But if you actually read the Mishna, you discover… a lot of these customs and rules are actually loopholes. No foolin’.

Take this ruling in the Mishna. The topic is ritual sacrifices. Some you ate; some you burned entirely. And sometimes the ancient Judeans wanted to know if they could just burn part of an animal, and have that count… and eat the rest. It’s like the half-caff version of a sin offering.

Temurah 1.3 KWL
Don’t substitute a leg for a fetus, nor fetuses for limbs.
Don’t substitute a leg nor fetus for a whole animal, nor whole animals for them.
Yet R. Yoseh says a leg can be substituted for a whole animal—but not whole animals for legs.
R. Yoseh says, “Isn’t it the rule for sacred animals
that when one says, ‘This leg is for burnt offering,’ the whole animal is a burnt offering?
Likewise if one says, ‘This leg instead of that leg,’ all of it is a substitution in its place.”

So, according to Yoseh, it totally counts. Why “waste” an entire sin offering on God anyway?

See, some Pharisees were looking for ways to follow the Law better, more devoutly, in order to grow closer to God. Like Nicodemus; like Paul, who overzealously went the wrong way till Jesus redirected him the right way. But the rest of the Pharisees were looking for ways to make the Law far less work on them. Less duty. Less charity. Less obedience… but they could point to the bare-minimum effort they exerted, and claim, “But I am obedient. I’m doing as the rabbis taught.”

Looked like religion; actually was irreligion. So Jesus called it hypocrisy, because that’s exactly what it is.

And of course we Christians do the very same thing. We likewise look for loopholes in the bible, in God’s laws, in Jesus’s instructions, in the apostles’ teachings. We’re pretty sure we found plenty: Huge swaths of the bible, we claim, don’t apply to us. The Old Testament doesn’t count ’cause we’re under the New Testament. Or we’re in a different dispensation; we’re under grace not Law. We have freedom in Christ and following any guidelines is legalism and slavery. Whatever excuse helps us get out of our obligation to be good and faithful servants of our Master, and be good as God defines goodness.

In place of God’s revealed will, we’ve placed Christianism. It’s a pathetic substitute, but it’s everywhere; it’s so prevalent, nobody realizes we pulled a switcheroo. ’Cause people are convinced Christianism is Christianity. It’s what their churches teach. Why should any of ’em think it’s not Christianity?

And this is how hypocrites spread, and create hypocrite disciples—twice the children of hell as their forebears, because the forebears knew they were undermining Christ, but the children have honestly convinced themselves they’re being righteous by defending their forebears’ loopholes. The first Pharisee rabbis found in the Mishna no doubt knew they were making exceptions for people who were struggling to do the right thing, but the second generation took those exceptions and made them tradition. The first Pharisees bent the Law; the second Pharisees straight-up broke it. Yet claimed they upheld it. So Jesus called ’em hypocrites. ’Cause they were.

So: Which of our “Christian” traditions and customs actually violate the scriptures? Which widely-accepted behaviors are actually stuff God condemned, or run contrary to the Spirit’s fruit? Where does our religion run afoul of Jesus’s religion? ’Cause if we’re gonna call ourselves Christian, we’d better not be on the opposite side from Christ Jesus. No matter what the masses consider acceptable: They don’t define Christianity. Jesus alone does. Follow the shepherd, not the sheep. Or the wolves.

Breaking Sabbath.

One of the ways Jesus regularly enraged Pharisees was his habit of curing the sick on Sabbath. He’d even do it in the middle of synagogue services. Because, he pointed out, some needs are greater than Sabbath. People are greater than Sabbath. Sabbath was created for people, y’know. Mk 2.27

Pharisee custom was ostensibly to keep people from even coming close to breaking Sabbath. You wanna know what constitutes “work” on the day we’re forbidden to work? The Mishna has a list.

Shabbat 7.2 KWL
The main types of work are 40 minus one: Sowing. Plowing. Reaping.
Binding sheaves. Threshing. Winnowing. Sorting. Grinding. Sifting.
Kneading. Baking. Shearing wool. Whitening. Combing. Dyeing. Spinning.
Weaving. Making two loops. Weaving two threads. Separating two stitches.
Hunting a deer. Slaughtering. Skinning. Salting. Tanning. Scraping. Cutting.
Writing two letters. Erasing so one can write two letters. Building up. Breaking down.
Putting out a fire. Lighting a fire. Hitting with a hammer. Carrying from one space to another.
These are the main types of work: 40 minus one.

Betcha they could’ve thought of a 40th. I can: The Law instructed people to stay home on Sabbath. Ex 16.29 But Pharisees wanted people to go to synagogue, so they stretched this command so “home” would include the typical distance between home and their synagogue. That’s the basis of “a Sabbath day’s journey” Ac 1.12 —roughly, one kilometer—and walking farther counted as “work.” Even though walking anywhere violated the spirit of resting on Sabbath.

But here’s the deal: Pharisees didn’t invent this list and stick to it because they cared about Sabbath. They created and enforced it because they didn’t wanna work. If anyone ever told them, “I realize it’s Sabbath, but could we visit your mom today?” a Pharisee hypocrite could easily say, “Well that’s more than a Sabbath day’s journey”—even though this distance was already a loophole—“so no.” It wasn’t done out of devotion to God; it was entirely to evade Mom. Or evade small but necessary tasks. Really to evade everything.

When Jesus stepped up and cured the sick, Pharisees claimed their objections were because it was Sabbath, and Sabbath is holy. But Jesus called them hypocrites. Because he knew their real motive for objecting, and it has nothing to do with upholding Sabbath. It has everything to do with the precedent Jesus sets by helping the needy on Sabbath: If the Master doesn’t blow them off on Sabbath, it means we don’t get a Sabbath day’s loophole. It doesn’t break the Law to help the needy. Their need supersedes what day of the week it is.

If Jesus did it, we should do it. It’s called following Christ; it’s the whole basis for asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”

Yet Christians have given ourselves all sorts of excuses why we can’t do as Jesus does. Loopholes. A sort of on-the-fly Christian Mishna.

  • “Well yeah Jesus did that, but he’s Jesus. He’s perfect; I’m not. He has special God-powers; I don’t. He knew his Father’s secret will precisely; I don’t. He’s way smarter, far more qualified, to do this than me; if I stepped up I’d botch everything. Besides, didn’t he turn off the miracles?

  • “It doesn’t matter if the scriptures tell Christians in general we can do that: Jn 14.12 I can’t do it unless I first get special revelation from God. I can’t just ‘step out in faith’—that’s not faith but arrogant presumption. Nope; Jesus has to appear to me personally and order me to do that. So I’ll just be over here sitting on my ass, waiting for him to say something.”
  • “God helps those who help themselves. I’m not gonna help needy people unless I see them making a satisfactory effort to solve their problems themselves. I don’t wanna promote dependency, after all. We shouldn’t have to depend on God for everything, you know.”
  • “That’s gonna cost money I can’t spare. Because I’ve already earmarked it for rent. (Okay, a new video game console. But I deserve a new console. I don’t know about them.)”
  • “They don't need handouts; they need the gospel. That’s why we only preach the gospel. Giving them handouts is like promising them Jesus will give them stuff if they convert. That’s sending the wrong message: Jesus is giving them nothing. Just eternal life; that’s it.” (Yeah, it’s projection. They’re stingy, ergo so is their idea of God.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Bad and faithless servants.

Years ago a preacher made a good point: If Christians are the earth’s salt, picture the earth as a steak; picture the large number of Americans who claim to be Christian as covering the steak with their salt. How salty ought this steak be? Yet how salty is it really?

In my country, more than seven out of 10 citizens imagine themselves Christian. Yet look at all the problems in our society which stem from people not loving their neighbors, not loving one another, not doing for one another, not forgiving, not being like Jesus. We’re a mess. So are plenty of other countries, whether their population pretends to be Christian or not. Jesus has a lot to fix when he returns. I expect he’ll delegate a lot of those duties to the very same irreligious Christians who are exacerbating the mess.

Kinda like he is now… if we’re paying attention to him. But the hypocrites who aren’t paying attention to him, aren’t doing anything but blame others and blame the opposition party. What would Jesus do? Less blaming and more ministering. What therefore should we do?