Legalism; May 11, 2018


Matthew 12:7-8 “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus had a running battle with the Pharisees over legalism. It was eventually what they killed Him for, because they derived their authority and sense of moral superiority from the very laws that Jesus said were secondary at best. We forget that they were the church leaders of the day, the best of society, as it were. There were certainly some genuinely good people among them, such as Nicodemus, but the typical Biblical record shows them as self-righteous hypocrites. The problem is, they still exist today, just without the organizational name of Pharisee. Different groups have different rules, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad. The problem comes when those groups condemn each other for those different rules. We do have to be on our guard against genuine heresy, as Paul, James, Peter, and John all make clear in their letters, but at the same time Paul devoted the entire letter to the Galatians to attack the idea that external rules of behavior, such as Jesus was dealing with here, are a way to gain favor with God. This particular example is fairly extreme, because observance of the Sabbath is commanded in the 10 Commandments. The problem was in the rigid interpretation of what it means to “observe the Sabbath.” When we make our faith into a rigid framework of rules, we have lost our faith in the process.

I will confess to having been startled to read that Barbara Bush sipped bourbon during her final hours on this earth, because I grew up in a strictly tea-totalling family. That I don’t drink now is not simply from that background, but because I feel no need of ethanol in my system and because my position as a teacher and pastor causes a lot of people to look at me as an example. They probably don’t have the abundant supply of liver enzymes I discovered I have, the one time I decided to get drunk as an intellectual exercise. (It didn’t work.) However, I find I do tend to set my personal habits of piety up as a standard in my mind, and judge others as to how they meet that standard. That makes me something of a Pharisee, too! I am not to adopt an “anything goes” attitude, but I am to apply the standard Jesus gives here: mercy, not sacrifice. I am convinced that the way I live is the path of greatest blessing, so I am to recommend it to all, but I am not to sit in judgment over how closely they follow it. After all, I don’t follow it perfectly myself!

Father, thank You for this reminder. Today and tomorrow Nagasaki is hosting the national convention of the Early Morning Prayer Association, with people of many denominations gathering. I pray that I would exercise what You have just reminded me of here, in my official function and in my private interactions, so that the Body of Christ may be built up in love, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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About jgarrott

Born and raised in Japan of missionary parents. Have been here as an adult missionary since 1981.
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