Living the High Life: Interpreting the Law

LTHL Poster

You Might be a Pharisee

Several years ago, a fellow Georgia native made a name for himself by comparing people in general to a certain segment of the population. He managed to make quite a name for himself making these comparisons and they ended up on coffee mugs, yearly flip calendars, and various other pieces of merchandise. The phrase that paid, at least for him, was, “You might be a redneck if…”

We’re going to play a version of this game but I’m going to alter it a little from the original. Instead, I’m going to say, “You might be a blank…” and then finish the statement.

  • You might be a blank if you believe in both the Scriptures and the teachings/traditions of the elders.[1]
  • You might be a blank if you believe, “the ability to do what is right or wrong is within the capacity of every person, so that fate cooperates with human free will.”[2]
  • You might be a blank if you believe “in the resurrection of the dead and in an afterlife in which people would be rewarded or punished according to their actions in this life.”[3]
  • You might be a blank if you believe “in angels and spirits.”[4]
  • You might be a blank if you believe in “political realism” and have a “deep concern to preserve the religion of your forefathers.”[5]

Some of you have caught on from the description and the text that the blank in this case is Pharisee. For all our maligning of them through the years in the Christian tradition, many Christians have a great deal in common with them. Think about how many of those beliefs you yourself might espouse. Think about how closely your own ideas about faith and religion align themselves with the Pharisees of Jesus day. Quite often, Christians have looked at Pharisees as being the overly religious, uber-pious defenders of a dead Jewish faith that Jesus came to correct or erase all together depending on the viewpoint. But I think the truth is, we have quite a few Pharisaical tendencies ourselves. We have our own bastions of ideas that we hide inside of with the intent of defending ourselves against all comers.

So, if we are so much like them and they are not necessarily all that bad, why do the gospels have such bad things to say about them? Why do they get a bad rap? Let’s look a little deeper in the text and see what might be hovering below the surface.


Herman Who?

Before I started seminary, someone gave a piece of advice that went something like “Learn all you can learn but remember that most of it is only interesting to you and the other people you go to class with.” For the most part I have tried to follow that advice but from time to time, I like to throw out a few ideas that resonated with me because otherwise, what was the point in going? One of my favorite seminary words is hermeneutics. I know, I know. Herman who? Hermeneutics is simply a ten-dollar word for the methods and tools we use to interpret things. Your method of interpretation has a lot to do with your perspective and worldview. It’s like having a series of lenses that you can try on and each of them give the world around you a different look and focus on differing things. A telescoping lens might let you see tiny things while a wide-angle lens would let you see great areas at one time. Each is useful, but each must be used for its purpose and only its purpose.

In the ancient world, people developed hermeneutics for their lives they simply didn’t know it. Jesus and the Pharisees in our story had theirs and it colored how they saw God and his creation. The way the stories are told in the gospels also has a coloring as well, in some cases leading people to believe horrific things about Jewish people even to this day.

For most of people, the idea of being a Pharisee as a bad thing. They are, after all, at odds with Jesus through most of the gospels and they are generally blamed for the death of Jesus, using the Roman government as the tool for the job. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes,

The Pharisees have been misunderstood and maligned by the church at least since the Jerusalem Temple fell in the year 70 and the church found it in direct competition with Pharisees (as opposed to the priests, Sadducees, or Essenes) as heirs to Israel’s traditions in a post-Temple age. Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.[6]

But, the heart of the issue between Pharisees and Jesus, and eventually the early church, was an issue of interpretation, or better yet, worldview. This worldview signals the hermeneutic lens – or set of lenses used – for both.

Most scholars write about the Pharisees as a sect of Jews often misunderstood and much maligned. To understand the Pharisees, we need to understand their perspective on Judaism, specifically the Law of Moses. The Pharisees looked at the law and tried to ‘fill in the gaps’ where the law seemed ambiguous. For instance, when the law said, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they wondered “what does it mean to remember? What does it mean to be holy? how do you define rest? These are the kinds of questions that the Pharisees were most interested in answering, debating, and wrestling with such things. Over the years from their beginnings, about one hundred-fifty years before the birth of Jesus, the Pharisees had been developing a tradition with respect to interpreting the Law.[7] The other major sects, Sadducees and Essenes, were focused on other things; the Sadducees on the temple and enforcing temple worship as the most important aspect of Judaism and the Essenes on how wrong the other two sects were and how they wanted to live out their own version of Mosaic Judaism in the wilderness outside Jerusalem.

The Pharisees were of the people, spending their time teaching and preaching in the synagogues around the Palestinian region. For most Jews of the time, the Pharisees were the connection they had to their faith, since trips to the temple in Jerusalem were infrequent and usually reserved to once a year occasions. It was the Pharisee’s teaching that defined Judaism outside of Jerusalem and their interpretation was what drove community norms and behavior.

Enter Jesus

In Luke chapter six, we see Jesus challenging the Mosaic interpretation of the Pharisees by working on the Sabbath. The writer of Luke says,

“…as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”[8]

Here we have an example of what we talked about before. The Pharisees regarded doing any physical labor as work, so everything was taken care of before the Sabbath started at sundown on Friday evening: no cooking, no cleaning, no lighting fires, no feeding animals, nothing. Yet, here is Jesus, obviously aware of the law and the Pharisaical interpretation of it, watching his hungry disciples pick the heads off wheat stalks and eat them and saying nothing about it. Some of the Pharisees noticed and were immediately indignant. Here is Jesus, a rabbi, perhaps even schooled as a Pharisee in their tradition, breaking the Sabbath according to their interpretation of it.

On another occasion, Luke writes,

“…Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 1Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So, he did and his hand was made healthy. They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.”[9]

Again, Jesus defies their idea of interpreting the Sabbath. The interpretation of the Pharisees was that God rested, God commanded us to rest, and no work, not even the tiniest fraction of work, was to be done. Frankly, by their definition, I’m surprised anyone even bothered to get out of bed and get dressed as that might constitute working in the effort to do so.

But Jesus in his interpretation asks a question of their understanding, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” In other words, why do we have the Sabbath? What makes the Sabbath special? To help us understand, in another place Jesus asks, “Is the Sabbath made for man or man made for the Sabbath?” Here we get to the point. Here, we get to the important aspect. Why do we have a Sabbath?

The answer is a matter of personal hermeneutic, a method of interpretation. For the Pharisees, it had become a way of controlling community and behavior as is common in religious and political systems but on the positive side, a way of living a holy life before God in conscience. If you know all the rules and you never break them, you never have anything to worry about. Being able to say who is in the club and who is out, so to speak, was how people defined doctrine, belief, and their community. For Jesus, it was a time in which the physical rigors of day to day life gave way to time with God and community. As God rested on the seventh day, so we should rest but rest should be defined, not by detailed laws and baseless traditions, but by a time set aside for true fellowship with God and with neighbor.

What does all this mean to us?

  1. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes,

“The question lying under the Pharisees challenge to Jesus, underneath Jesus’ answer to them, and underneath Luke’s decision to include these stories in his narrative concerns faithful identity to a community’s tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances.”

While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy.

What does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practices mean in such a day? Maybe Sabbath controversies are not just an ancient concern after all.[10]

There is the question for us, what does remaining faithful to Christian tradition and practice mean to us here and now. What do we use to interpret the Scriptures, the traditions, the experiences of our lives? I would advocate that it means not more rules, more doctrine, more dogma, or more denominational strictures and controls, but it means simplifying things down to the basics, to spend our time emulating Jesus and using passages like The Sermon on the Mount, the mission of Jesus in Luke 4, the call to feed and clothe and care for one another as in Matthew 25, and to carry this message to others with our lives as in the Great Commission.

We started off the sermon questioning if we might be Pharisees. We have now seen that interpretation is the real difference between how Jesus and the Pharisees saw the world. So the question that we will leave with, to wrestle with in the days to come is how do we want to see the world, as Pharisees with confidence in the rules about God or in Jesus with confidence in the person and relationship of God?

[1] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc, 5384-5387

[2] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc. 5318

[3] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.), Kindle Loc, 5391-5392

[4] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.) Kindle Loc. 5394

[5] (Lee-Barnewell n.d.) Kindle Loc. 5395-5396


[7] (Ehrman 2004), p.235-240

[8] Luke 6:1-2

[9] Luke 6:6-11


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