The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are the authorized interpreters of Moses’ Law. So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do; do not, however, imitate their actions, because they don’t practice what they preach. They tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.
Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day. He starts out by talking to the crowds about the Pharisees, then he moves on to talking to the Pharisees directly.
When Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, he says “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with—not until the end of all things.” After he says this, he goes on with his great sermon where he seems to critique and modify Law. But by starting with a statement affirming the Law, he seems to be saying is that flawed laws are better than no laws.
In this same way, he prefaces a long tirade against the Pharisees and religious leaders by saying, “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are the authorized interpreters of Moses’ Law. So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do.” He doesn’t want lawlessness. He doesn’t want anarchy. Again, he seems to be saying that flawed religious leaders are better than no religious leaders.
That having been said, he offers up his first criticism: “Do not, however, imitate their actions, because they don’t practice what they preach. They tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.” In other words they expect people to obey the letter of the Law, but there’s no compassion in it. They aren’t willing to cut people a little slack when it’s appropriate. Jesus objects to their legalism and callousness. All of those sacrifices required by the Law were expensive. In many cases giving a chicken to the priests might be taking food out of children’s mouths. As I described on Day 65, sick people were often cast out of their villages and left to die. Many offenses, like failing to observe the Sabbath or committing adultery, were punishable by death. Rather than helping people get themselves straightened out they taxed them, shunned them and killed them. Because that was what they believed those people deserved. That was the religious institution of Jesus’ day.
Clearly putting these kinds of burdens on those who are seeking God is wrong, then and now. All you have to do is go back to Day 112:
Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light. (Matthew 11:28-30).
No unnecessary burdens allowed! Way back on Day 22 I used an analogy from the old Andy Griffith Show. Both Andy and Barney know the letter of the law, but they have a different approach to enforcement. Barney repeatedly gets into trouble because of his legalistic approach. He is always trying to punish people for every minor infraction. Andy, on the other hand, invariably administers true justice because he has the law written on his heart. He administers the law in a way that results in peace, harmony, and the common good. He rarely hands out punishments.
I think Jesus is telling his disciples that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law are acting like Barney, always eager to punish. Jesus says that it’s not good enough to be like Barney. To try to be a big man. To relish exercising authority. To make people feel bad. They are so caught up in the performance of their duties that they are blind to the pain and suffering of those around them. They don’t understand that God wants compassion and kindness more than uncompromising obedience to the Law.
The same thing happens today. While the teachings of Jesus are compassionate and kind, the actions of Christians often are not. We should do what Jesus tells us to do, but we should be very careful about imitating Christians and their leaders. A lot of books are written on this subject, and one of the most popular is Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get it Wrong. Adam Hamilton pastors a United Methodist Church which has grown to 20,000 members. He likes to go out on the street and talk to people about life, and God, and the church and he has come to the conclusion that there are five major things that Christians do that repel other people. One reviewer sums them up this way:
(1) The way some Christians behave–in negative, judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving ways.
(2) The anti-intellectual attitudes of some Christians and the basis of these attitudes in fear; the author discusses at length the controversy between belief in evolution and creationism.
(3) The way some Christians view other religions–exclusivism–and discusses universalism and inclusion.
(4) The role of God in human suffering–determinism versus seeing God’s hand amidst suffering.
(5) The way some Christians view homosexuality; the author makes a case that being against homosexuality is a cultural interpretation of the Bible that is no longer appropriate.
What Adam Hamilton describes here really boils down to the same complaints that Jesus had about the religion of his day – uncompromising, superficial legalism coupled with a lack of kindness and compassion. Numbers 2, 3 & 5 represent and underlying obsession with legalism while number 1 & 4 demonstrate a lack of kindness and sensitivity. All of these behaviors and preoccupations create social division rather than reconciliation and community.
As I meditate on this long section where Jesus details inappropriate religious practice, I’m going to look at my own perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up. Some of the things Jesus talks about are still problems, but others are no longer relevant. I think it will be an interesting exercise. While the Sermon on the Mount tells people “what to do,” this section tells people “what not to do.” Should be interesting.
What does this scripture say to you?