Legalists

You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You travel over land and sea to win one follower. And when you have done so, you make that person twice as fit for hell as you are.

You are in for trouble! You are supposed to lead others, but you are blind. You teach that it doesn’t matter if a person swears by the temple. But you say that it does matter if someone swears by the gold in the temple. You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

You also teach that it doesn’t matter if a person swears by the altar. But you say that it does matter if someone swears by the gift on the altar. Are you blind? Which is more important, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Anyone who swears by the altar also swears by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple also swears by God, who lives there. To swear by heaven is the same as swearing by God’s throne and by the one who sits on that throne. (Matthew 23:15–22)

Within a week of his crucifixion, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their legalism, which too often led them to violate the law rather than keep it. The Pharisees rightly recognized the importance of keeping their oaths. But then they lost sight of the simple fact that God wanted people to do what they say and to mean what they say. Instead, the Pharisees began wondering what actually constituted an oath. They defined it very carefully. If a promise lacked the right words, or was not spoken in just the right way, then the Pharisees had concluded that it was not an oath at all and not legally binding. Rather than worrying about the intent of the heart, they became obsessed with the outward form.

Jesus berated them for their concern with finding reasons not to be bound by the promises they made. God did not create the law in order to give employment to lawyers. We do not stand before God with our attorney finding loopholes in God’s commands so we can escape our commitments. There are no “technicalities” awaiting our discovery. The Pharisees, Jesus said, were blind and foolish. Too many of them had lost sight of what really mattered: love. Despite their intent to keep the law, they had become lawbreakers.
Jesus wants us to be focused on loving God and loving people, rather than seeking ways to get out of trouble.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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