The Pharisees (Matthew 23: 1-12) were a group dedicated to seeing Israel become holy, because they believed that only when the nation reached God’s standards of holiness – as they understood them – would the Messiah come to
establish God’s Kingdom. Their way of making Israel holy was to expand the Old Testament commandments into a series of extra laws, codes and protocols
to govern just about every aspect of life. The Scribes were the lawyers who drafted this extra legislation, who interpreted and applied it.
These laws were not all bad- some were beneficial. The problem arose when
the religious leaders: 1) applied these laws legalistically; 2) told the
people to obey these rules when they did not always do so themselves, and 3)
instead focused on making themselves look good and holy on the outside in
order to receive the people’s admiration and praise. Jesus did not condemn
the Pharisees’ teaching – it was the law of Moses – but what they had
Jesus taught a different way of holy living: not by the letter of the law,
but by going to the core of the original commandments and obeying them from
the heart. He summed up the whole Old Testament law in just two
commandments: love God with all your being and love your neighbour as
yourself. The Pharisees and Scribes thought Jesus’ approach was way too
unorthodox, and so sought to get rid of him, not grasping that was the
Messiah. For his part, Jesus was fiercely critical of the Pharisees for
diverting Israel at the very time when she needed to be ready for, and
focused on, her Messiah.
Sometimes today community leaders – and not just clergy - fall into the
patterns of the Pharisees and Scribes. They want to control people by
increased laws and protocols. They desire positions of leadership in
society or the church not out of loyalty to God, but for love of power and
prestige. Jesus is not against all leadership – we need strong Christian
leaders – but against leadership that serves itself rather than others.
Jesus challenged society’s norms: greatness comes from serving- giving of
ourselves to God and others. Service keeps us aware of other’s needs, and it
stops us focusing too much on ourselves.