Jesus continues His condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees. This time we examine three short items not often understood very well by Western Christians.
Jesus came as the Messiah to restore the ancient ways of the Covenant. His teaching was everything the Law of Moses was meant to say. Granted, the Covenant of Moses was largely restricted to a particular nation, in a particular place and time. All the particulars of the ritual law were specific to that context. On the one hand, a great deal had changed from those days. On the other hand, the people had long ceased to understand what the Torah meant in the first place.
The Pharisees had one thing right: It was necessary to update the image of what it meant to be obedient to the Law. On the other hand, they had chosen to absorb the Hellenistic intellectual traditions in order to understand something that was Eastern Mysticism by nature. The result was legalism. Instead of bringing a fresh mystical insight into the particulars of a drifting world, they tried to drag all the particulars of life back into the ancient customs, which customs were devoid of life and no longer communicated God’s revelation.
The Law of Moses was meant to be an entryway into the Kingdom of Heaven. It was supposed to teach people something of the divine moral character of the Father. Once they became familiar with His ways, they could then approach Him in spirit and get to know Him personally. That’s how the Covenant of Moses was supposed to work. The Pharisees perverted the whole thing. Because they were utterly incapable of understanding Moses, they were utterly incapable of understanding God. Indeed, they had made a false god out of their logical analysis of the Covenant. Their interpretation of the Law became more sacred than the Law itself.
Thus, Jesus sought to teach a restoration of the vital source of living by reading between the lines of the Old Covenant. He sought to restore the purpose of the Law by presenting Himself as the very living Law of God, a human manifestation of the Father’s divine moral character. He placed revelation even more closely in reach of sincere seekers. The Scribes and Pharisees rejected this entirely. They refused to acknowledge the meaning of the Covenant and closed themselves off from all its promises. They were so hostile that they found it unbearable that anyone should teach the truth of the Law, and did everything in their power to keep even people they despised, such as their own outcast publicans and prostitutes, from repenting according to Jesus’ teaching, not to mention Gentiles.
So it was no surprise that the Pharisees were somewhat wealthy through their rapacious rejection of the spirit of the Covenant. There was much in the Law to protect orphans and widows, the two kinds of folk most likely to lack feudal protections in a tribal society. Among the Scribes in particular were men who engaged in predatory lending. They would work to get some poor widow into debt, then when she couldn’t pay, they would seize her collateral. Often the only thing a widow had was her house, and this was the preferred collateral the Pharisees would demand in pledge on loans. Of course, there were a thousand other ways to cheat people who weren’t familiar with the secretive details of Talmudic law.
Yet these same Scribes would spare no expense in dressing in the best, parading around and engaging in elaborate rituals of public greeting. They would arrange to be outside the Temple during prayer times so they could stop in some public place, block traffic and make these long-winded poetic prayers that hardly reflected the desires of their hearts.
The Pharisees recognized two kinds of converts from among Gentiles. First was the Proselyte of the Gate, someone who was willing to bend to most Jewish customs and worship Jehovah from out in the Court of Gentiles in the Temple. They kept a version of the Law of Noah Jews cooked up for them. The second was the Proselyte of Righteousness, someone who was willing to pass through circumcision, baptism and publicly embraced the Covenant in the presence of three Jewish witnesses. This was more than God actually required (Exodus 12:48-49). Circumcision with the tools of ancient times was no small discomfort for men, so there were naturally more females fully converted than men.
The whole purpose of the Law was to witness to the entire world the truth of God and His revelation for a fallen world. If a Gentile nation would but embrace the Covenant of Noah, the blessings God offered were roughly on par with the blessings of Moses for Israel. The difference was in that Israel alone had the direct revelation of God.
That the Pharisees had twisted that revelation meant they could not do anyone any good at all. All who converted on their terms were even farther from God than Gentiles who had no clue about Israel’s God.