Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” [Mark 7:6-8 (NLT)]
Throughout Scripture, we find Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, one of the most important Jewish sects of the day. Not priests, the Pharisees were laymen (mostly merchants and tradesmen) who zealously followed Mosaic Law, often by adding non-Biblical traditions to it. Considered interpreters of the law, they were known for their austere life style and vast knowledge. The Pharisees accepted the oral explanations and additions of earlier generations to be equally inspired and authoritative as the written words of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
These oral traditions consisted of highly specific rules and regulations that were based on the belief that, when God gave Moses the written law on Mt. Sinai, He also elaborated on how those laws were to be kept. Unwritten, those explanations became oral tradition. This devotion to oral law developed during Judah’s Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem’s destruction and their exile was God’s punishment for the neglect of His law so it’s understandable that no one wanted to endure God’s wrath again. Restrictions evolved that were designed to “build a hedge” around the Torah and guard against any possible breach of the law, whether by ignorance or accident.
With their detailed laws regarding nearly every aspect of life, the Pharisees were legalists. Jesus didn’t approve of the way they’d replaced God’s simple law with complex man-made laws that placed a heavy burden on the people—a burden that God hadn’t given them. Although work on the Sabbath clearly was prohibited, the Pharisees determined that meant a tailor could not carry a needle stuck in his coat, someone couldn’t carry ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, and no one could spit on the ground because that might make a hole, which would be digging, which would be work! It was the Pharisees who said the disciples had sinned by reaping and preparing food on the Sabbath when they picked heads of grain off their stalks!
Jesus criticized the Pharisees’ devotion to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. Some of the Pharisees’ man-made rules, such as a loophole allowing people to renege on promises, actually helped them get around God’s law. If someone swore by the Temple or the altar, the oath wasn’t binding but, if someone swore by the gold of the temple or the offerings on the altar, it was! Because of their inability to be consistent in their interpretation of oral and written laws, Jesus compared the Pharisees to the blind leading the blind.
For many Pharisees, there was a disparity between what they professed (righteousness) and what they put into practice (self-righteousness). Jesus certainly didn’t like the gap between what they proclaimed and what they actually practiced and frequently called them out for their pretense and hypocrisy.
There’s much we can learn from the Pharisees: not to be pompous, hypocritical, judgmental prigs is perhaps the most obvious. That we shouldn’t think we can earn heaven by following a false gospel of salvation through works is another. The hardest lesson is probably the most subtle: never to confuse human dogma for Godly doctrine. When we give our personal preferences or denominational rules and traditions equal billing to God’s law, as did the Pharisees, it’s easy to become pompous, hypocritical, judgmental prigs.