Life of Christ 115
This is the sixth of an eight part mini-series on the errors of the Pharisees.
The fifth error with which Christ reproached the Pharisees was that of having an untenable religious system. In other words, their doctrinal approach produced, in practice, an unworkable religious system. 'And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers' (Luke 11.46).
As I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, the Pharisees originated with sincere intentions. Some good men in the centuries before Christ saw hellenization taking over their unique Torah based culture, and fought back by emphasizing a strict interpretation and application of the Law. They viewed the Law as a garden that contained wonderful flowers, and this garden needed protection from encroaching Greek and Roman cultures. They well remembered the great flaws of their great grandparents in the days before the Babylonian Captivity which saw Jewish monotheism under incredible assault from idolatry. They remembered the mixed multitude of Nehemiah's day, and admired the great lengths to which he went to maintain the religious and moral purity of the Jewish people.
In the minds of these early Pharisees, then, it made great sense to put an unbreakable fence of various minute rules and regulations around the lovely garden of the Torah so as to protect it, and by default the Jewish people's loyalty to it. Somehow, they found a way to the erection of this fence to an Oral Torah which the first rabbi, Moses, had supposedly issued alongside of the written Torah when he came down from Mount Sinai. Thus, in one fell albeit gradual swoop, the Pharisees became the self-appointed custodian for the religious, cultural, moral, and ethnic soul of Israel.
One of the great problems with the system they produced, however, was the very justification which produced it. If a fence that kept you six feet away, metaphorically speaking, from violating the garden of the Torah was good then one that kept you twelve feet away was even better, etc. If a five foot high fence was good then a ten foot high fence was better. There was a foundational rationale for producing an ever more complex and minute series of instructions designed to ensure that people didn't violate the Law of Moses.
The result, by Jesus' day, was a system that was practically impossible to actually obey. For instance, I blogged earlier this year about the Pharisees approach to keeping the Sabbath (The Bankruptcy of the Pharisees). It was absolutely incredible. I realize I didn't grow up with it from my youth but I do not see, for the life of me, how in the world one could possibly make sure they kept every single one of those rules perfectly. The burden, for such it was and a great one, that rabbinic pharisaism placed on the back of the people of Israel was impossible to carry.
God never intended for our religion to be burdensome. 'My yoke is easy, and burden is light' (Matthew 11.29) Jesus said. Now that can certainly be misapplied, and has been, by all manner of antinomians in every century of Church history, but that doesn't make the statement invalid. There is a simplicity to our religion, or at least there ought to be (II Corinthians 1.12, II Corinthains 11.3). One of the best illustrations I've ever heard about the Christian life likened it to shoveling sand. It is often hard work, but it isn't difficult or complicated.
Beloved, we must be careful here. No, our theology isn't anywhere near as unscriptural or complicated as rabbinic pharisaism, but as I mentioned a couple of days ago, we live in an unashamed pursuit of religious purity. That wonderful godly desire has a natural human tendency to breed rules. Those rules have a natural human tendency to become increasingly large, complex, burdensome, and unwieldy. We must guard against these natural human tendencies, and against the foundational errors of pharisaism. We must constantly seek to ensure that our people are free to focus on the Lord, and on the actual condition of their own heart before Him. Certainly this can be done without abandoning our desire for or pursuit of religious purity or else that very freedom becomes lawlessness and bondage in turn, but it must be done regardless.
The Pharisees way over-complicated religion and burdened their people down with a system impossible to actually obey. The result in the people was the total absence of a heart turned toward God. Let us beware the same deadly mistake.