Mark 7:1-23 (AD 29)
Why did Jesus speak so harshly to the religious leaders in this incident? They asked a question that seemed, from the words alone, to be a genuine enquiry: why were Jesus’ disciples not following one a tradition established by previous leaders.
Jesus’ response of immediately calling them hypocrites showed that, as ever, he knew what people were thinking. Also that the leaders’ only reason for questioning him was to trap him. They wanted him to make him look like a bad Jew, abandoning the faith, not worthy of the disciples’ respect. And then if they could stop the twelve disciples respecting him or being his disciples, maybe Jesus’ public popularity would start to wane.
Verses ten to thirteen are a classic example of legalism being used not to increase morality, but to avoiddoing the good that God intended. The Pharisees decided that the Jews’ responsibility to give to God, and their responsibility to care for their ageing parents must overlap. Thus if someone was up to date on their tithe they should turn a blind eye to their parents’ needs on the grounds that they’d already given everything they were obliged to God. “And you do many things like that”, Jesus said (v.13).
This is often the case with legalistic people, and it’s not a coincidence. ‘Legalistic’ in the Biblical sense does not mean, ‘insisting on obedience to God’s commands’. God insists on his own commands, and commands us to insist on them with our fellow-Christians. God’s love is not a counter-argument to his holiness.
Rather, legalism uses the principle from an actual law, to invent a further law or restriction that has no legal or moral weight. Teetotalism and cinema avoidance are examples of reasonable ideas that some people make into laws.
Almost all of us are tempted to be legalistic about some things, and some of us are tempted to be legalistic about many things. One of the problems is that by declaring non-laws to be, effectively, laws, we make God look like someone who denies our freedoms for the sake of it, and that Christianity is effectively just like all the fake religions: a bunch of rules that are hard – and undesirable – to keep, at the end of which you hope that maybe the supreme being will be pleased with you. Which is more or less the opposite of the truth.
When we are legalistic, we pull people away from God, and that incurs God’s wrath. That’s why Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious rulers. He had almost nothing to say about the idol-worshipping, mass murdering, slave-making Romans, Everyone could see that they were nothing to do with God so they brought no shame on him. But the Pharisees and Sadducees worked hard to portray themselves as the gatekeepers to God, and as the only reliable source of information on what God was OK with.
Don’t cut yourself off from God by demanding more, or less, than God does. Instead, take his commands seriously, and understand them as the God-honouring response to his grace on you.