‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, so goes the opening lines of the hymn authored by Charles Wesley but is he? On any impartial reading of the gospels, the answer is ‘yes and no’. Last week, we saw vividly Jesus’ gentleness and compassion for the leper and his suffering. Who could forget his tender response to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), an offense punishable by death according to Jewish law, along with idolatry and murder?
But we also see an angry side to Jesus and the group that ticked him off the most was not sinners but the Pharisees. They were comparable to those whom the press might label Bible-belt fundamentalists. They believed that the written word was God inspired. Their passion for the Law of Moses was second to none and yet Jesus singled them out for his strongest attacks, calling them snakes, brood of vipers, blind guides, and whitewashed tombs.
One of the major reasons for this is while they stood for strict conformity to Mosaic law, they also felt very strongly about a variety of extra oral traditions that interpreted the Law of Moses. Take for example their rulings on what you could do on Sabbath. They ruled that it was forbidden to set a dislocated foot or hand on the Sabbath. If a building fell down on the Sabbath, enough rubble could be removed to ascertain if victims were dead or alive. If they were alive, they could be rescued. If they were dead, corpses couldn’t be moved until sunset.
If you levelled crevices in the ground, you were plowing and that was considered work. Therefore, a person should not spit on the ground and wipe it with his feet, lest crevices be levelled! However, you were permitted to step on spittle that was lying on the ground as one walked because that was unintentional. Walking more than 800 metres was considered a journey, and therefore, a breach of the Sabbath. They were legalists who focused on petty things but on more weighty matters such as justice and compassion, they neglected (read Matt 23:23-24).
This was what got Jesus’ back up with the Pharisees. I mean, how could they ever believe that God would frown upon someone setting a dislocated foot on the Sabbath? They had become harsh and exacting in their application of God’s law to others. They had turned God’s law that was intended to point us toward loving him and our neighbours into burdens that crushed people. Their traditions distorted God’s character laws into someone and something that is harsh, joyless, loveless, heartless and judgmental.
The scary thing is, they didn’t set out to be like this and yet, according to Jesus, that is exactly what happened. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees should be a sobering reminder to us all that we must be vigilant in guarding our hearts from becoming legalistic and self-righteous like the Pharisees.