It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me why Jesus seemed to be so down on the Pharisees. Sometimes they get portrayed as the ‘baddies’ when really weren’t they the ones who were trying to keep the rules, trying to live right with God according to the Jewish law? In fact, they were so consumed with being careful to keep the law that they would often construct additional rules to ensure that they didn’t break something accidentally and that they kept far away from breaking the ultimate laws of God.
This would be a bit like deciding to drive on the motorway – with a legal limit of 70 miles per hour - at a maximum of 60 miles per hour because you never want to break the official limit. But then, just in case, resolving not to go above 50, just to be sure you’re not going to get distracted and do it accidentally. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Well not always, and not when it comes to motorway driving! Worse though, the problem with this legalistic mindset is that when you’ve set your speedometer to 50, or even 60, its very easy to become judgemental of others who are actually sticking to the 70 limit anyway.
One thing that Jesus really seemed to despise were those who were judgemental of others; “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). And, if you then broke your own rules, that hypocrisy came in for Jesus’ sternest criticism. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
Maybe this idea makes sense of Ecclesiastes 10:8. If you dig a pit to catch others out beware it doesn’t become a danger to yourself! And if you build a wall or a hedge (as some translations have it) beware the unseen dangers that lurk if you then break through it (like a snake’s bite).
Now the interesting thing here, of course, is that our enemy, Satan, is portrayed as a serpent in Genesis 3. He tempts the first human couple to disobey the only boundary that God gave them and, instead, to eat the forbidden fruit. Sadly, when they did that very thing, it was indeed as if the serpent had bitten them. Their relationship with God was now in tatters, and the Satan’s poison now infected every aspect of their lives.
It’s interesting to me that at the very beginning of the Bible there was just one rule to follow – trust God and do what He says. All else was freedom. By the time the Pharisees were legislating, there were hundreds of rules for every aspect of life. But praise be to God, when Jesus came, He reversed the fall and returned humanity to a state of grace with a simplified focus in place for how God’s redeemed children were to live. He put it this way: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:30-33). Jesus knew that pride would only lead to destruction (Proverbs 16:18), and that was the terrible danger that Jesus sought to warn the pharisees about.
We too would do well to learn from the dangers of legalism and judgementalism and neither speed when we drive nor go unnecessarily slowly.
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