Sometimes I feel bad for the Pharisees in the Bible. When it comes to faithful and diligent observance of the commandments, no one could rival their commitment. For all their effort, however; when the Messiah (Jesus) finally showed up on the scene, he doesn’t have many nice things to say to them. So what gives? After all, the commandments were given to them by God. It almost seems like a cruel trick to itemize such a comprehensive moral law, as is found in the Torah, and then treat its most strict observers with contempt.
This apparent contradiction seems to be conspicuously on display in the reading I heard at church this past Sunday from Mark 7 in which the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. Seems like a fair and harmless question, but Jesus’ response comes across as disproportionately harsh. He calls them hypocrites in front of a public crowd and then catalogs a list of their hypocrisy.
This is the same Jesus who made a habit of showing mercy and acceptance to those who violated God’s moral commandments. If the Pharisees are guilty of something, why doesn’t Jesus respond in the same tender way?
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More Than Just Rules
What I find really interesting about the moral commandments listed in the Torah is that many of them have very practical health benefits that a scientifically illiterate nomadic group of people would have no way of knowing except by luck. According to the CDC, handwashing reduces the rate of diarrhea related illness by 31% and it reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16-21%. If God was raising up a nation to be his chosen people to prosper under his care, it would make sense that he would teach them the prescriptions for healthy physical and spiritual living.
God's Looking Out For Us
So what I take away from this is that the commandments that God gives us are done so for our benefit. They lead us to health, life, and prosperity. By contrast, the Pharisees seem to participate in these rituals as if they existed arbitrarily for their own sake and not because they actually provided any benefit. It’s the worst kind of legalism. Worse than that, they treat God as if his commandments don’t actually matter aside from blind obedience. Think about it. If I noticed you were eating your dinner without washing your hands after going to the bathroom, I might suggest you wash up first because I don’t want you to get sick. I wouldn’t say, “Why don’t you observe the tradition of washing your hands after using the bathroom.” Doing so would betray a sense that I only think you should do it because it’s an arbitrary tradition and not because it’s actually for your benefit.
Pharisees of Today
" There’s a strange version of this treatment of God’s commandments which exists within Christianity today. "
There’s a strange version of this treatment of God’s commandments which exists within Christianity today. It is found in movements who, ironically, react to the legalism of the Pharisees by saying that all religious ritual should be discarded because it is an attempt to add to Jesus’ saving work. It’s the other side of the same coin that treats the things we are told to do by God as if they aren’t for our benefit. This encounters sharp disagreement in the Bible, however; because if Jesus didn’t want us to partake in religious observance, then he sure set a bad example. Jesus’ life is marked by participation in religious practices (circumcision, endorsement of the temple, praying at synagogues on Sabbath, Passover) and, furthermore, he established new ones for us to follow (baptism, healing touch, last supper, etc.).
Authentic Christian Spirituality is Religious
Historically, the Church adopted ritual spirituality from the beginning in what has been known as sacraments or ordinances (see the 1st century Didache for a portrait of early Christian spirituality). They’ve been practised in differing ways and with varying recognition through the centuries, but they were always considered something that produces tangible benefit to the practitioner. They were and are the means by which God invades the material world with his grace and salvation. They infuse Christians with the divine life and this is consistent with the Bible’s emphasis on their role in bringing about our salvation (John 3:3-5, John 6:51-70, Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27, Acts 2:37-38, 1 Pet. 3:20-21).
Christians who treat religious practise with contempt can only do so if they see it as arbitrary ritual (as the Pharisees did) but Jesus’ example and teachings seem to suggest that these practises are actually effectual and essential for our wellbeing just as the rituals of the Mosaic law were for the Israelites. A proper Christian understanding of the role of sacraments as an essential element in our relationship with God and the means by which we encounter his grace will help you to avoid the same mistakes that the Pharisees made. They overemphasized ritual out of legalistic interpretation of their arbitrary nature. Some Christians reject religious ritual because of a legalistic interpretation of their arbitrary nature. The third way is the way that Jesus has led the Church and by following it, we encounter him in the incarnation as God invades the material world with his Grace.