One of the greatest rivals of Jesus were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. You could spot them from afar. Their phylacteries (boxes containing Scripture verses) were so wide and they wore them on their foreheads or arms- you would think they were all infected with a chronic tumour. The tassels in their garments were so long that as they walked, they must have swept the streets clean. Whenever there was a banquet, you would only catch them at the VIP section and if you saw them in the market place, you had to be sure to greet them and call them ‘Rabbi’, meaning teacher. They were considered teachers of the Law but Jesus considered them hypocrites. They were so keen in policing the ten commandments and to top it, they developed 613 laws. They thought Jesus a blasphemer and whenever they encountered Jesus, they accosted Him with a recurring question, ‘Is it lawful?’
‘Look! Your disciples are doing unlawful on the Sabbath’ (picking corn from the field) Matt 12:2
Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Matt 12:9
Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat! Matt 15:2
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? Matt 19:3
Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Matt 22:15
Of all the commandments, which is the most important? Mark 12:28
Jesus would retort with a ‘haven’t you heard what Moses said?’, ‘haven’t you read what David did?’ or ‘haven’t you read?’. At one point, when the Pharisees asked Jesus why his ‘disciples break the tradition of the elders’, Jesus responds with a ‘why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of tradition?’. In another instance, when the Pharisees tried to ‘spiritualize’ earthly matters, Jesus simply advised, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what is God’s.’
I try to figure why the huge disconnect between the Pharisees and Jesus, I try to wonder why Jesus would mete out the seven woes to the people considered ‘morally upright’. And one statement answers it all:
What is written in the Law? How do you read it? Luke 10:26
Both Jesus and the Pharisees used the same law to back them, but their perspectives differed greatly. The contention is traced to how they read it. Jesus says, ‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me’ (John 5:46). Somehow in their reading they failed to see the connection between the law and the promise. The promise given to Abraham as written by Moses in Genesis. ‘The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’ (Galatians 3:8).
Paul in Galatians continues to expound that ‘the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say, “and to seeds”… meaning one person, who is Christ’ (v16). They failed to see that before the law, there was a covenant- a covenant made to Abraham that could only be fulfilled through Christ. Paul furthers, ‘The law introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise’ (v17).
The law was a prelude to something bigger and better. Although the law was not God’s initial design, ‘it was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come’ (v19). Even when Christ, the ‘Seed’ came, the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not release the law, they held it all the more believing they would gain the Heavenly Kingdom by following it. They failed to see that law, based on what one should and shouldn’t do to be in good standing with God ‘was put in charge to lead us to Christ’ (v24). In other words, the law was established for us to see our helplessness, because no one could keep the law, the ten commandments, to its entirety.
However, the Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to live in denial and portrayed that they upheld the law to the core. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites because ‘they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move’ (Matt 23:4). Their enforcing the law meant that they would eschew Jesus, the One who not only could keep the law perfectly, but justify those who believe in Him and grant them the Heavenly Kingdom- eternal life.
By failing to admit that they could not do everything under the law, the Pharisees and Sadducees hardened their hearts, failing to hear the life-giving words of Jesus and tragically failing to believe that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (v13). And this failure to believe in Christ led the Pharisees to ‘shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces…making them twice as much a son of hell as they are’ (Matt 23:13,15).
Paul seeing that the Galatians were beginning to attain the goal by human efforts asks, ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’ The latter stands as the Spirit is only received by believing in Jesus Christ, and ‘faith only comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God’ (Romans 10:17). Therefore, paying heed to Jesus’s words written in the Bible and believing in Him is the only way man can be acceptable towards God, and not by any of our works- good or bad because, ‘our acts of righteousness are like rugs before Him’ (Isaiah 64:6). In that case instead of asking ‘Is it lawful?’ the Pharisees and Sadducees should have asked themselves, ‘Do we know and love the One who justifies us by faith and not by the law?’