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Was Jesus’ Criticism of the Pharisees’ Ethic Its Legalism or Lawlessness?

The popular understanding of the Pharisees is that they were legalists.  This is not, however, Jesus’ criticism of their ethics, even though the charge of Pharisaic legalism comes from a (mis)reading of the Gospels.  The Pharisees are cast in popular imagination as the quintessential example of legalists, overly focussed on rules and promoting works in order to attain righteousness apart from God’s grace.  The latter view, that Judaism overall and the Pharisees in particular advocated works righteousness, has been loudly criticised in light of numerous texts in second temple Judaism, celebrating God’s grace in choosing the Jews, not self-righteous works.[1]  Be that as it may, the Pharisees have remained the foil to Christian ethics precisely over their purported legalism—a focus on unloving, unforgiving rules and regulations that also places norms above, purportedly, higher moral principles.  Jesus’ ethic is contrasted as an ethic of forgiveness, mercy, love, and God’s grace as opposed to laws.

This line of argument latches on to some aspects of Jesus’ teaching, but it rather quickly falters when it stumbles into Jesus’ affirmation of the Law.  Some better interpretation of Jesus ethic is required—one which has a place for moral rules rather than dismisses them.  Jesus says,

Matthew 5:17-19 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy repeatedly in Matthew 23.  The word for ‘hypocrite,’ hypokritēs, is the Greek word for an actor, and this gets to the root of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees.  They claim the high ground of being zealous advocates of the Law.  When Jesus criticizes hypocrisy in Matthew 7.1-5—a passage that is regularly misunderstood—he is not saying that his disciples should not judge.  In fact, he lays out a process for judgement in Matthew 18.15-20.  Rather, Jesus is saying that anyone judging should not be hypocritical in that judgement, and this the Pharisees were.

Matthew 15.1-9 recounts an incident between the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples that brings the matter between them into focus.  The latter failed to wash their hands before eating, and the Pharisees accuse them of breaking the Law.  This will provide Jesus with the opportunity to teach on an ethic of the heart in subsequent verses, but in these first nine verses of the chapter Jesus focusses on the Pharisees’ mistaken approach to the Law.  Jesus’ criticism is not that they are hung up with laws but that they break laws.  The Pharisees created their own legal manipulations to skirt the Biblical laws.  The case at hand—the one Jesus identifies—is that the Pharisees evade commandments to care for their parents by claiming that their resources had been devoted to God (korban; Mark 7.11).

This is not unlike scholars and ministers in mainline Protestant denominations in the developed world that have come up with theological and ethical arguments to avoid Scriptural teaching on homosexuality.  The Bible clearly denounces homosexuality as a sin.  Those taking a contrary position have attempted exegetical, hermeneutical, and moral arguments to the contrary.[2]   Yet these are, in the end, fairly irrelevant to their cause: the conclusion is to be defended, not argued.  Ultimately, when the arguments fail, Scripture itself must be opposed or set aside for a higher ethic of inclusivity and diversity.  Those advocating for homosexual practices and same-sex marriage in these denominations suggest that orthodox Christians are being legalistic when they cite the Biblical passages on this issue.  Instead, they themselves are behaving like the Pharisees, using their crafty skills at (mis)interpretation to avoid the plain reading of the Word of God.  As Jesus says,

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  8 "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15.7-9).

It is human interpretation (the ‘commandments of men’), not obedience to God’s law, that is the error. 

A case in point is that, when the United Methodist Church voted to uphold the ‘traditional’ (i.e., orthodox and Biblical) view on marriage—that it is only recognized between a man and a woman and not persons of the same sex—the dean of one of the leading Methodist seminaries, Duke Divinity School, wrote about the grief this caused the seminary community in choosing to set aside Biblical teaching.  Dr. L. Gregory Jones wrote that they would, despite the denomination’s vote, continue to be welcoming and inclusive of all sexualities.[3]  Jesus would say that this is a matter of setting aside God’s Law for the ‘teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Mt. 15.9).  Of course, this welcoming does not include those who hold to the Biblical view that homosexuality is a sin—consider the case of Prof. Paul Griffiths, who was ostracized on the faculty, disciplined by dean Dr. Elaine Heath in 2018 just before her own resignation, and who resigned under duress.[4]  This is a way of evading God’s Law in the same way that the Pharisees did.  Neither Duke’s present dean and those supporting him nor the Pharisees can be accused of legalism.  On the contrary, they are opposing the Law with their creative theologizing.

When Jesus twice interprets his Kingdom ethic with the words of Hosea 6.6, saying that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, this is not said in opposition to the Law (cf. Matthew 9.13; 12.7).  Hosea actually says, ‘I desire steadfast love [ḥesed] and not sacrifice.’  Hesed is a covenant word that has to do with doing whatever is necessary to maintain a deep, covenantal relationship.  Hence it is translated as ‘love,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘steadfast love,’ and so forth.  The context of the verse is the sinfulness of both the northern kingdom, Ephraim, and the southern kingdom, Judah, whose love for God is compared to the quickly dissipating dew on the ground in the morning.  The problem with sacrifice is its half-heartedness, over against a deep, covenantal love that does not quickly fail.  As the verses that made up Israel’s daily prayer, the Shema, state, to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might is to keep His commandments (Deuteronomy 6.4-6).  Love is not contrasted with keeping God’s Law; to keep God’s Law is to love Him.  This is why Jesus says that the two commandments to love God and one’s neighbour are the two chief commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22.40).

Jesus’ use of Hosea 6.6 is in the context of a criticism from the Pharisees that he eats with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9.11-13).  Jesus does not argue that those the Pharisees call sinners are not sinners, just persons with a different moral code—as the dean of Duke Divinity School would have things.  Jesus accepts that they are sinners and that he is eating with them.  Jesus is not the champion of diversity and inclusiveness as though these are cardinal virtues but the saviour who has come to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21; cf. 1 Timothy 1.15).  He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 13.14).  Yet, as Hosea 6 also teaches, God will heal sinful Israel and bind her up after bringing judgement.  The ministry of John the Baptist involved calling sinners to repentance and righteousness; it was not about abrogating the Law, cancelling the definition of previous sins, and welcoming sinners as simply persons adding to the diversity of an inclusive community.  Jesus’ eating with sinners was a redemptive act for those who had repented or, possibly, were being invited to repent.  To continue with religion—the offering of sacrifices—without repentance was the problem in Hosea 6.  This is like continuing in the formal practices of religion, such as theological training for ministers at a divinity school, without acknowledging and confessing sin and returning to covenant faithfulness. Ḥesed, steadfast love, is obedience to God’s Law.  The steadfast love of repentant sinners (Hosea) and the mercy of others, including God, to sinners (Matthew) are part of the same thing: the restoration of repentant sinners to obedience of God’s Law in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the second passage in Matthew that cites Hosea 6.6, Jesus extends his interpretation further.  If Hosea had in mind the people showing God steadfast love by obeying His commandments and Matthew 9.13 has in view showing mercy to repenting sinners, Matthew 12.7 understands the passage from Hosea to include teaching that the guiltless should also be shown mercy.  The disciples had plucked grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, and the Pharisees accuse them of breaking the Law by working on the Sabbath.  This was their interpretation of the Law.  Jesus, however, argues that this is not a breaking of the Law—the disciples are guiltless.  Rather, the Law is intended to show the path of mercy.  The Pharisees had instead turned it into something burdensome and that harms the guiltless by not showing them mercy.  Note that, once again, Jesus is not teaching against the Law but affirming it.

Thus, the error of the Pharisees was not legalism, as is so often maintained. Their error was in lacking a serious enough obedience to the Law, a misunderstanding of the Law, and a misuse of the Law.  Their error was not legalism but lawlessness, which is why Jesus calls them hypocrites.  Jesus says, ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.20).  They are hypocrites, they invent crafty teachings that manage to avoid the Law of God rather than uphold it, and they fail to see that God’s Law is merciful.  Over against the Pharisees’ ‘yoke’ (i.e., their legal teaching), Jesus’ teaching is not burdensome.  He says,

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11.29-30).

The error of the Pharisees, who fancied themselves as the great Law-keepers, was their lawlessness.  Jesus’ Kingdom ministry was to lead Israel—sinners and all—out of their exile in sin and back to God’s Kingdom rule.  He did so not by reclassifying sin as no longer sin, not by doing away with the Law, but by extending God’s mercy to sinners who returned to covenant faithfulness, to a steadfast love of God, by obeying the commandments of His Law.

[1] The criticism took root after the seminal work of E. P. Sanders—Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneaplis, MN: Fortress Press, 1977).
[2] My arguments against these various and conflicting arguments are presented in Donald S. Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).
[3] ‘Statement from Dean Jones on UMC General Conference’ (February 26, 2019); online: (accessed Feb. 29, 2019).
[4] ‘Elaine Heath Steps Down as Duke Divinity dean; Greg Jones Steps In,’ Christian Century (August 8, 2018).  Dr. Griffiths error on this ‘inclusive’ faculty was to suggest that a racial equity training event was ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘totalitarian’.  According to this article, when he took the reins as dean at Duke Divinity for a second time in 2018, Jones said, ‘We have important challenges to address, including continuing the work of diversifying the faculty, staff, and student body, and building an ever-more inclusive and welcoming environment for all, so that we may have a richer common life.’