“You must be careful to do everything [the Pharisees] tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Verse 3 (NIV)
Over the years I have met all kinds of Christians. Or at least they claimed to be Christians. The ones that I had the least sense of connection with were the ones who could quote chapter and verse to prove their point. Not because they knew the Word (I envied that part of their life) but because they used the Bible like a battering ram to beat anyone into submission who did not agree with them.
The Pharisees were religious leaders who wanted people to keep the law of Moses. So, they built up all kinds of rules around the basic law, and they burdened the people with them. In the process, many of the leaders got so distracted by the rules that they forgot the heart of the law (love God; love your neighbor), and they did not practice what they preached.
In today’s reading, Jesus let the Pharisees know what he didn’t like about them. Jesus agreed with a lot of what the Pharisees taught. Jesus was a faithful Jew, so he thought the Pharisees had good things to say about what it meant to love God and to serve God. But Jesus showed that the Pharisees cared more about the appearance of loving God than about actually loving God.
Following Jesus does not mean throwing out all religious traditions. Religious tradition helps us to keep our focus on Jesus and we can have many different practices. Jesus knew that faith is meant to be practiced in community. We cannot be Christians by ourselves; we live within the guidelines of a community of other Christians.
But following Jesus also does not mean following the rules just for the sake of the rules. Jesus always called his disciples to put people first and traditions second. Jesus challenged the Pharisees for making the rules of the law more important than people. He called them to show love to people, as the law was intended to help them do. Jesus calls us to love people today too, following his excellent example.
Father, thank you for giving us your law of love. By your Spirit, help us to love you and others. Amen.