17 November 2020


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 were so careful to follow every single one of them perfectly (and in so doing, earn salvation), they created all these extra doctrines and traditions as kind of a hedge around the Law. Supposedly they spent so much time fretting about the extra stuff, they’d never get around to breaking the Law.

Yeah, that’s not why Pharisees had the doctrines and customs. Wasn’t what they were doing at all.

If you want to know what the Pharisees were about, you gotta read the Mishna, a compilaton of what Pharisees were teaching as of the early second century. (Which of course includes what they taught in the early first century, i.e. Jesus’s day.) The Mishna is the core of the Talmud, one of the two main books of present-day Judaism. (The other’s the Tanakh, which we call the Old Testament.) And in it, you’ll discover a lot of these customs and rules… are actually loopholes.

No foolin’. The rabbis of the Mishna were of two minds: One group wanted to follow the Law and teachings of the bible, namely the spirit of the bible—exactly like Jesus wants us to study the bible. And the other group wanted to figure out how to technically follow the LORD’s commands… but not really. They wanted to follow them to the barest minimum. Or, if possible, not follow ’em at all.

When Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, that’s the group he meant. They’ll sit in the teachers’ seats in synagogue and read the bible to the audience, and tell ’em to follow it, and meanwhile they themselves don’t. At all.

Matthew 23.1-7 NLT
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
5 “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6 And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.‘ “

In the gospels, the problem with Pharisees wasn’t legalism. In Acts and Paul’s writings it was: The Pharisees insisted to the ancient Christians one has to follow the Law before one could be saved. (As if the Hebrews of the Exodus met that standard when the LORD saved ’em from Egypt!)

Legalism’s a valid problem, and there was a legalist faction among the Pharisees. Same as we Christians likewise have our legalists and libertines. Every religion has ’em!

But the bigger, more pervasive problem with Pharisees was their loopholes. They had tons.

Take this Mishnaic ruling. The topic is ritual sacrifices. Jesus’s death rendered them moot, so we Christians no longer sacrifice animals and grain to anything but our stomachs; we’re not familiar with biblical procedure. Well, some you burned entirely on the altar, and some you ate with the priest and your family. The question came up whether a worshiper could just burn part of an animal, and have that count, then eat the rest. It’s like the half-caff version of a sin offering.

The useful thing about the Mishna is it regularly gives both sides: The strict tulings and the loose ones. In this case it starts with the strict ruling… then what Rabbi Yoseh let his synagogue get away with.

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.”

This is why Jesus called ’em hypocrites. They claimed to be following the Law as best they could, to be the most righteous people on earth. They claimed they were looking for ways to follow God better, more devoutly, in order to grow closer to him. Like Nicodemus; like Paul, who overzealously went the wrong way till Jesus redirected him the right way. But the reality is they were looking for ways to make the Law convenient. Less duty. Less charity. Less obedience… but they could point to their bare-minimum efforts and claim, “But I am obedient. I’m doing as my rabbis taught.”

Looks like religion; actually is irreligion. So it’s hypocrisy.

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 our churches teach. Why should anyone think it’s not Christianity?

This is how hypocrites spread, and create hypocrite disciples—twice the children of hellfire as their forebears, Mt 23.15 because the forebears knew they were undermining Christ’s teachings, but the children have honestly convinced themselves they’re being righteous by repeating their forebears’ loopholes. I’ll give the first Pharisee rabbis the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they were trying to be generous, and make exceptions for people who were truly struggling to do the right thing. But the second generation of rabbis took their exceptions and turned ’em into tradition. The first Pharisees bent the Law; the second Pharisees straight-up tore it in pieces. Yet claimed they upheld it. It’s fraud and hypocrisy, and Jesus called it like he saw it.

So: Which of our “Christian” traditions and customs actually violate bible? 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, as 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 one step farther counted as “work.” Even though walking a kilometer 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, “Can’t; 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 mustn’t blow them off on Sabbath. We aren’t permitted 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 give 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. Now picture the large number of Americans who claim to be Christian, covering the steak with our salt. How salty ought this steak be? (Too salty to eat, really.) Yet how salty is it?

In my country, more than seven out of 10 citizens imagine ourselves 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?