The prevalence of Pharisees in Jesus’ life keeps popping out at me for some reason. I think it has to do with one of the classes we had at our Bible school this year that discussed the topic of legalism. My attention keeps getting dragged to these men – rulers, priests, scribes, religious leaders. They never left him alone, did they? Today I want to explore just why that is possibly the case.
Now what I am wondering is why the Pharisees and similar “gangs” pursued Jesus so vehemently. Why they had to dig up problems that didn’t really exist. Why they figuratively “gnashed their teeth” at his wisdom and his growing ministry to the physically and spiritually poor and sick. For some reason, they could not/would not leave him alone – so that he could pursue his ministry in peace. Today, in Mark 7, we see them “gathered together around him” – again trying to dig up dirt on the behavior of his disciples. (Interesting that they attack the more vulnerable disciples much of the time – pack animals always go for the weakest prey…) This phrase “gathered together around them” reminds me directly of Psalm 22; “many bulls have surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me, they open wide their mouth at me, as a ravening and a roaring lion…”v.11-13
So my question again is why was stalking this particular rabbi so important to these adversaries of our Lord? Why did they take time out of their self important lives to follow him around and pick trouble with him? Well, I think our chapter in Mark gives us some possible answers. In fact this passage gives us background on the behaviors of these men and their traditions. It makes it sound as if their traditions are actually sacred to them – these men are what we might term “Obsessive compulsive” about all the washing and cleansing that is described in verses 3-4. And they do not like anyone who does not follow their ritualistic “tradition of the elders”.vv.3,5 “How dare your disciples not submit to OUR power and traditions in the name of God?!”, they seem to say to Jesus. “Don’t you know that WE are in charge of the spiritual direction of these ignorant people??? And they must all submit to OUR control!!!”
And how does Jesus address their frenzied concerns? Is he patient and long suffering? Nope. You see he is getting tired of their hardness of heart, and the lack of care they have for the spiritual widows and orphans of the nation – including his own disciples. He sees through their pompous bluster and supposed religious dedication. He has no patience for their continuous attacks. He begins his discourse by calling them hypocrites. And he quotes the scripture (they hold so sacred but have no real life application for in their own behavior.) His words would be withering to a humble soul but, unfortunately, they are not humble men:
“you nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition…”v.9
Imagine that! They are going so low as to twist God’s word to their own ends! They are “setting it aside” in order to justify wrong, selfish behavior. And worst of all – they are doing it in the name of God! Jesus roundly condemns them as “invalidating the word of God by YOUR tradition which YOU (not God) have handed down.” v.13 He concludes by saying they “do many things such as that!” Wow. They are really bad dudes! And the saddest part of all is that they don’t even know it! They think they have been vested with this authority as teachers and leaders and yet they make a mockery of the very duty that has been entrusted to them. It is sobering. They have the pride of life in its most deadly form. They are blind leaders of the blind as Jesus calls them elsewhere.(Mt. 15:14) No wonder Jesus, the true servant/leader/rabbi/priest, has no patience with these relentless men. And why are they so relentless? Jesus exposes their evil for all to consider. But darkness never likes to be exposed. They hate Jesus. They hate the threat he poses to their authority over the people. They hate that his life is good and full of good deeds when their own are so obviously empty in comparison. They hate that he challenges their control over the world and disrupts their inflexible lives. They hate everything about him. So they doggedly pursue him to trip him up and try to drag him down.
And getting back to what I learned about legalism is the thought that it is, simply put; self-justification. These men constantly wanted to justify themselves and would go to any extreme – including mishandling God’s word – in order to do so. They did not care for the constant opportunity for repentance Jesus’ very existence (let alone his amazing good works) presented to unsettle their arrogant, self-justified lives. There is no room for humility before a greater character once a person decided they have it all figured out. And these men not only thought, but KNEW they had it all figured out.
These oodles of Pharisee stories are a sober reminder to me to be humble and teachable before others. They are a reminder to not place tradition above God’s commands. They are a reminder to beware of trying to have power and control over other people (especially in the name of religion).
These Pharisee accounts are a not-so-subtle reminder of how Jesus looks at those who manufacture trouble in order to justify themselves and their wrong behavior. He uses them as an example of wicked hearts as he teaches his disciples about what true defilement is. It is not physical dirt washed off dirty hands – but rather the evils that proceed out of men’s self-justified hearts.vv.20-23 His list includes things those Pharisees were apparently guilty of; coveting, deceit, slander, envy, pride, foolishness – these are things we are ALL prone to, my friends. He also includes a deeper list like; sexual immorality, theft, murder and adultery. Apparently the self-justified human heart won’t even stop at the lowest of men’s wicked deeds. Do we need to be reminded that these are the same so-called religious men that are preparing to murder God’s only begotten son?…Let us take heed from them and repudiate their behavior – both in ourselves, and in those who practice them – just as Jesus did.