Summary: Jesus gives us the profile of a legalist.
Last time, we looked at verses 37-44 at the profile of a hypocrite given by Jesus in response to a criticism from a Pharisee. After Jesus finished addressing the Pharisee, the scribes pointed out He had also insulted them. Jesus basically responded by saying, “If the shoe fits wear it!”
Jesus said they were as guilty as the Pharisees, for while the Pharisees were the practitioners of hypocrisy, the experts in the law help promote hypocrisy through their emphasis on legalism. (READ TEXT)
The scribes interpreted the law of Moses by coming up with rules to define how the law was to be obeyed. The Pharisees were dedicated to living by these rules. This is why they’re often mentioned together.
The Law said no work was to be done on the Sabbath Day. So the scribes categorized things to determine what was work or not. For instance, to carry a burden was to work. But a burden had to be defined. So the scribes said a burden was “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen” - and so on endlessly.
They spent endless hours on whether a man could lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor sinned if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth, or if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. Their
religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.
This legalistic approach to life change was condemned by Jesus then, even as the Bible condemns it today.
“ ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” - Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)
Jesus readily criticized the legalistic approach and in so doing, gives us a profile of a legalist. A legalist . . .
1. Places standards on others he won’t accept for himself - v. 46
William Barclay gives an example of how the scribes did this. “The limit of a Sabbath day’s journey was 2,000 cubits (1,000 yards) from a man’s residence.” But if on the Friday evening before, he left at any given point enough food for two meals, that point technically became his residence and he could go 1,000 yards beyond that!
Carrying a burden was forbidden, but the law of the scribes said, “he who carries anything, whether in his right hand, or in his left hand, or in his bosom, or on his shoulder is guilty; but he who carries anything on the back of his hand, with his foot, or with his mouth, or with his elbow, or with his ear, or with his hair, or with his money bag turned upside down, or between his money bag and his shirt, or in the fold of his shirt or in his shoe, or in his sandal is guiltless, because he does not carry it in the usual way of carrying it out.”
It’s incredible that men ever thought God could have laid down laws like that, and that working out of such details was a religious service and keeping of them a matter of life and death. But that was scribal religion. Little wonder that Jesus turned on the scribes, and that the scribes regarded him as an irreligious heretic.
Too often this type of attitude is reflected by believers who think they have it all figured out and are, therefore, intolerant toward those who disagree with them. I’m not speaking about essentials of the faith, but rather, the inconsequential concerns of so many, like length of hair; the appropriateness of facial hair; ladies wearing pants rather than dresses; ladies wearing make up; piercings; tattoos; where and when and who can wear hats; men wearing a suit and tie; and on and on and on.
Instead of trying to impose our attitudes and opinions as the Word of God; we need to let the Word of God shape our attitudes and opinions! As the 17th century German Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius expressed it: “In essentials, let there be Unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; and in all things, let there be charity.”