In today’s text we find Jesus talking about freedom. He is talking not to Scribes and Pharisees but to the crowds and to his disciples about the Scribes and Pharisees. He was wanting the people to break free of the legalism that the Scribes and Pharisees represented – the legalism that was both binding and exhausting the people. I think it’s fair to say that he was also speaking to us about our need constantly to be breaking free of whatever insidious legalism our own inner ‘scribe’ and ‘pharisee’ may be forcing us to embrace and to live by.
Jesus’ intense criticism of them is shocking because it seems so out of character for this usually calmly, all inclusive, deeply loving man. Matthew writes how for a while Jesus had been having a go at them – challenging them, but in Matthew ch23 we see him moving away from the implied innuendo and nuances of parables to today’s direct attack.
In the following verses we see him go on to say ‘Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees’ some 7 or 8 times, calling them blind fools and hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, snakes, a brood of vipers…but then ending with SUCH compassion: ‘…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…’
Jewish tradition saw the primary role of Pharisee and particularly the Scribe being to protect The Law. The Law was seen as being something very beautiful and sacred given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, then passed from Moses to Joshua, then from Joshua to the Elders of the people, then to the Prophets, and finally to the Scribes of the temple.
As a nation the Jewish people had come to realize that they were probably not ever going to be the great political power they once thought they would be. After being hammered by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and the Romans, they’d realized that their primary identity was not so much to be political as spiritual, the people of The Law – the same ‘Law’ which the Scribes and Pharisees believed that they had primary authority to preserve.
And the Law was good. The ‘Law’ is good! Insofar as the Law represents how they were to be living lives of reverence for God and respect for all people and for all creation…
‘The Law’ is good. What Jesus was so directly criticizing was not ‘The Law’ per se as what those Scribes and Pharisees were doing with it. Instead of allowing their alignment with it to provide a liberating orientation/identity for all of God’s people, they were using people’s slavish obedience to their ‘Law-religion’ to imprison them. And worse. They were making their role as the ‘Custodians of the Law’ to be all about inflating the importance of themselves and as a result were suffocating the faith of others.
I understand that that the Talmud – a collection of ancient Jewish teachings from around the 2nd to the 4th century AD – describes seven types of religious Pharisee. It’s kind of scary how closely we may perhaps find ourselves identifying with some of them. What do you think? It’s as if all these failings could be characterised into one of two classes – Vss 1-4 as failures of burden, and vss 4-12 failures of ostentation – both of which are toxic.
Eugene Peterson beautifully paraphrases Jesus’ response to all of them where he asks :‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out on religion? Come to me get away with me and you will recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t let anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you will learn to live freely and lightly.’
If our attempts at living what we believe is not life giving and liberating, if instead, it is burdensomely confining and much more about us pharisaically drawing attention to ourselves than to the God of love whose Grace has been given in Christ to flow into and out from us to others – with us as the conduits but never the source of that grace – then we, just like those criticized Scribes and Pharisees, are missing the point.
And so what is the point? Just what is the whole point of The Law that Jesus elsewhere says: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them! What is the free and faithful life that we are called to be living – the ‘released’ life that those Scribes and Pharisees were missing? The life that Jesus was longing to see those people and all people embrace.
Scholars speak about there being One Law, One Truth, One Perennial tradition that pulses within the heart of every beautiful spirituality that is worth its salt! It is the One Truth that Jesus points us and all creation towards, revealed in Him, and embraced by all of us in the Christian tradition as our embrace of the risen Christ. It’s One Truth that states how, most essentially, at the heart/the soul of everyone and everything is something similar to and even identical with Divine Reality, that Wonderfully Infinite Mystery which we call God.
And more: it’s the truth that the highest form of our living is a life which flows as the result of such awareness – a living that leads to lives of awesome reverence for God as above, below and within all people and things and lives of most profound respect for those all people and things as – somehow – the bearers of God.
The liberating ‘Law’ of God is fulfilled in us not by our slavish obedience to any external set of rules and laws, but as we are given to come to live lives that are marked by our ability to treat everyone and everything with that ‘second’ ‘holy’ ‘respect’-look – a look marked by an increasing awe and reverence for the holiness potential that is everywhere.
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1 William Barclay describes these groupings: There’s the shoulder pharisee who’d do good things, but who’d then wear their good
deeds on their shoulders to be seen and admired by others. The wait-a-while pharisee who while speaking about the good things
of their faith always had a good reason for procrastinating the actions. The bruised / bleeding pharisee: who believed in absolutely
no contact with women, and so would be so intent on avoiding them that they’d close their eyes and bump into things when
women were around, and then allowed their bumps and bruises to become marks of their piety. The humpback and tumbling
pharisee were so stooped and stumbling in their outward display of humility that it affected their posture and how they’d walk,
hunched over and dragging their feet, tripping, tumbling. The ever reckoning pharisees were constantly measuring their good
deeds against God’s standard, as a kind of tallying up profit or loss statement of their living. The timid and fearing Pharisees were
always fearful in their dread of divine punishment as they feverishly kept the outside cup of their lives clean while allowing the
insides to be corrupt and godless. The faithful or God-fearing pharisees who love God and lived lives that obviously delighted in
2 Matthew 11:28
3 Matthew 5:17
4 Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy