Was Jesus’ Criticism of the Pharisees’ Ethic Its Legalism or Lawlessness?

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Was Jesus’ Criticism of the Pharisees’ Ethic Its Legalism or Lawlessness?












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Was Jesus’ Criticism of the Pharisees’ Ethic Its Legalism or Lawlessness?

This line of argument latches on to some aspects of Jesus’ teaching, but it rather quickly falters when it stumbles into Jesus’ affirmation of the Law.  Some better interpretation of Jesus ethic is required—one which has a place for moral rules rather than dismisses them.  Jesus says,
Matthew 5:17-19 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy repeatedly in Matthew 23.  The word for ‘hypocrite,’ hypokritēs, is the Greek word for an actor, and this gets to the root of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees.  They claim the high ground of being zealous advocates of the Law.  When Jesus criticizes hypocrisy in Matthew 7.1-5—a passage that is regularly misunderstood—he is not saying that his disciples should not judge.  In fact, he lays out a process for judgement in Matthew 18.15-20.  Rather, Jesus is saying that anyone judging should not be hypocritical in that judgement, and this the Pharisees were.
Matthew 15.1-9 recounts an incident between the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples that brings the matter between them into focus.  The latter failed to wash their hands before eating, and the Pharisees accuse them of breaking the Law.  This will provide Jesus with the opportunity to teach on an ethic of the heart in subsequent verses, but in these first nine verses of the chapter Jesus focusses on the Pharisees’ mistaken approach to the Law.  Jesus’ criticism is not that they are hung up with laws but that they break laws.  The Pharisees created their own legal manipulations to skirt the Biblical laws.  The case at hand—the one Jesus identifies—is that the Pharisees evade commandments to care for their parents by claiming that their resources had been devoted to God (korban; Mark 7.11).
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15.7-9).
It is human interpretation (the ‘commandments of men’), not obedience to God’s law, that is the error. 
When Jesus twice interprets his Kingdom ethic with the words of Hosea 6.6, saying that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, this is not said in opposition to the Law (cf. Matthew 9.13; 12.7).  Hosea actually says, ‘I desire steadfast love [ḥesed] and not sacrifice.’  Hesed is a covenant word that has to do with doing whatever is necessary to maintain a deep, covenantal relationship.  Hence it is translated as ‘love,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘steadfast love,’ and so forth.  The context of the verse is the sinfulness of both the northern kingdom, Ephraim, and the southern kingdom, Judah, whose love for God is compared to the quickly dissipating dew on the ground in the morning.  The problem with sacrifice is its half-heartedness, over against a deep, covenantal love that does not quickly fail.  As the verses that made up Israel’s daily prayer, the Shema, state, to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might is to keep His commandments (Deuteronomy 6.4-6).  Love is not contrasted with keeping God’s Law; to keep God’s Law is to love Him.  This is why Jesus says that the two commandments to love God and one’s neighbour are the two chief commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22.40).
Jesus’ use of Hosea 6.6 is in the context of a criticism from the Pharisees that he eats with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9.11-13).  Jesus does not argue that those the Pharisees call sinners are not sinners, just persons with a different moral code—as the dean of Duke Divinity School would have things.  Jesus accepts that they are sinners and that he is eating with them.  Jesus is not the champion of diversity and inclusiveness as though these are cardinal virtues but the saviour who has come to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21; cf. 1 Timothy 1.15).  He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 13.14).  Yet, as Hosea 6 also teaches, God will heal sinful Israel and bind her up after bringing judgement.  The ministry of John the Baptist involved calling sinners to repentance and righteousness; it was not about abrogating the Law, cancelling the definition of previous sins, and welcoming sinners as simply persons adding to the diversity of an inclusive community.  Jesus’ eating with sinners was a redemptive act for those who had repented or, possibly, were being invited to repent.  To continue with religion—the offering of sacrifices—without repentance was the problem in Hosea 6.  This is like continuing in the formal practices of religion, such as theological training for ministers at a divinity school, without acknowledging and confessing sin and returning to covenant faithfulness. Ḥesed, steadfast love, is obedience to God’s Law.  The steadfast love of repentant sinners (Hosea) and the mercy of others, including God, to sinners (Matthew) are part of the same thing: the restoration of repentant sinners to obedience of God’s Law in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the second passage in Matthew that cites Hosea 6.6, Jesus extends his interpretation further.  If Hosea had in mind the people showing God steadfast love by obeying His commandments and Matthew 9.13 has in view showing mercy to repenting sinners, Matthew 12.7 understands the passage from Hosea to include teaching that the guiltless should also be shown mercy.  The disciples had plucked grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, and the Pharisees accuse them of breaking the Law by working on the Sabbath.  This was their interpretation of the Law.  Jesus, however, argues that this is not a breaking of the Law—the disciples are guiltless.  Rather, the Law is intended to show the path of mercy.  The Pharisees had instead turned it into something burdensome and that harms the guiltless by not showing them mercy.  Note that, once again, Jesus is not teaching against the Law but affirming it.
Thus, the error of the Pharisees was not
legalism, as is so often maintained. Their error was in lacking a serious
enough obedience to the Law, a misunderstanding of the Law, and a misuse of the
Law.
  Their error was not legalism but
lawlessness, which is why Jesus calls them hypocrites.
  Jesus says, ‘
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.20).  They are hypocrites, they invent crafty teachings that manage to avoid the Law of God rather than uphold it, and they fail to see that God’s Law is merciful.  Over against the Pharisees’ ‘yoke’ (i.e., their legal teaching), Jesus’ teaching is not burdensome.  He says,
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11.29-30).
The error of the Pharisees, who fancied themselves as the great Law-keepers, was their lawlessness.  Jesus’ Kingdom ministry was to lead Israel—sinners and all—out of their exile in sin and back to God’s Kingdom rule.  He did so not by reclassifying sin as no longer sin, not by doing away with the Law, but by extending God’s mercy to sinners who returned to covenant faithfulness, to a steadfast love of God, by obeying the commandments of His Law.

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