From today’s reading of Matthew 23, Luke 20-21
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long . . . – Matthew 23:1-5 (ESV)
It’s easy when reading the gospels to just assume the scribes and Pharisees were wrong through and through. But Jesus here affirms that their teaching was not wrong. They were sitting on Moses’ seat, teaching the law given by God. The law is good.
And yet, in a very crucial way, their teaching was wrong. They showed by their own lives that keeping God’s law is impossible in our own power, and yet still taught that salvation comes through keeping the whole law. This kind of teaching will do a number on the teacher, and it had developed in the Pharisees an exquisite blindness to their own hypocrisy.
Jesus is, of course, the great Light who gives sight to the blind. He decides to shed some light on the situation and so in Matthew 23 he lays into the scribes and Pharisees with brutal precision.
The Pharisees in their teaching had made it a habit to tie up their people with the heavy burden of keeping a law that in our fallen state we are incapable of keeping. Out of the cognitive dissonance that followed, within the heart of each scribe and Pharisee it seems that the mission changed for them. Deep in their hearts this statement took hold.
“I can’t keep this law I am teaching. The second best thing will be to at least look like I’m keeping it.”
I’ve engaged in that deadly logic myself, many times. The law of God is good. But in a cage match against my flesh, obedience to the law is going to get trounced. Paul writes the following in Romans 8:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 (ESV)
The Pharisees weren’t completely wrong. The righteous requirement of the law can be fulfilled in us. But the only hope of that happening is to throw ourselves upon Jesus, the Gift of God. In a completely unfair trade, we give him our weakness, our hypocrisy, our show-morality, our flesh, our sin, and we get his righteousness, his Spirit, and most of all, we get all of him!