Though sinless, Jesus was regularly accused of breaking the Law. Take this account, when he and his disciples were going for a walk on the Sabbath:
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”Matthew 12:1-8
Here’s the gist:
The Pharisees were following Jesus around looking for anything to hold against him. Using their knowledge of the Law regarding the Sabbath, they rebuked the disciples for eating some heads of grain. Jesus’s response indicated he was not only familiar with the Law, but with other moments when it was “broken” by those the Pharisees would honor, David and the priests. He concludes by naming that their lack of understanding led to their condemnation of innocent people.
On one level, the Pharisees had a desire to see God’s law upheld; on another level, they were driven by something else. In other words, their rebuke of the Sabbath law being broken was not because they wanted God to be honored, but because they wanted Jesus to be dishonored. How do we know? We keep reading. They continued to follow Jesus, looking for ways to accuse him of wrongdoing. When they failed, “the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
Even if their intentions weren’t malevolent, they were poised to misstep; in their attempt to uphold certain laws, they failed to uphold the heart of the Law.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22:36-40
Scripture says “God is love”, and love is a recurring thread woven throughout the Bible. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”, to love God and to love others.
So then, who actually missed the mark in the story above? The disciples who “unlawfully” picked grain on the Sabbath, or the men who, in their attempt to “uphold” the Law, failed to love their neighbor as themselves and broke one of the greatest commandments?
Jesus — although knowing they would fail to hear him — tried to demonstrate their limited understanding of both the law and the Sabbath (in Mark 2:27 he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) In fact, misunderstanding and misuse of the Law was a common discussion topic not just for Jesus, but for the Apostle Paul and some of the disciples.
They knew what we fail to remember: we are capable of using the Law to condemn and destroy, rather than to draw ourselves and others to the God that loves us.
We are not just capable: we are actively doing it.
Jesus said, “if you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent,” and even today I witnessed Christians condemning others over their interpretation of the Law and their perception of the other’s “unlawfulness.”
I get it, it’s complicated; how do we rectify what we believe to be clear scriptural mandates with what seems to be ignorance or rejection of them? How do we show love in those moments without feeling like we are compromising or neglecting God’s Word? At what point do we stand for what we believe is right?
I’d like to offer two starting points:
Know your motives
I think we can all agree that there are people who have so strongly held to their stances — on immigration, or abortion, or social justice, or homosexuality — that they’ve engaged in a way that dishonored God. I say “there are people”, because in acknowledging it exists in others, we may be a little more open to owning it can exist in us. In you. In me.
Because it does. Whether small or large, we — each of us — have had moments of being committed to a stance more than we were committed to God. These may be good, just stances, and our logic may be sound, but in those moments our allegiance inevitably shifts away from the Christ who said, “die to all and follow me.” In our pursuit of stances, we can mean well while failing to follow Christ.
The Pharisees were not intrinsically villains. Many of them sought God with their lives in ways that put our pursuits to shame. They lived the laws, memorized the Scripture, and devoted their existence from childhood to seeking and honoring God. Yet, somewhere along the way, many of them lost sight of the God they sought to follow. Whether it was pursuit of power, or reputation, or to a concept of God and His law, they strayed so far that they rebuked, threatened, and killed the son of God.
If the Pharisees could do it, we can too. How might our understanding of God, of Scripture, and of the Law lead us to lose sight of the God we seek to follow? How might our pursuit to defend God’s Law lead us to “condemn the innocent?”
If we are unwilling to check and confront our motives, we are at risk of dishonoring Christ just like the Pharisees.
Stay in your lane
We have all experienced people that didn’t “stay in their lane”. Whether it’s someone interfering with a job or responsibility that is not their own, or interjecting their unsolicited opinion, we know the trouble that can come when someone steps in where they aren’t meant to. Like a person who isn’t a plumber saying, “oh, I can fix that busted pipe for you,” we know they can cause more damage than there was before.
Ephesians 4 explains that some were called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. This passage — among many others — demonstrates the reality that we have been called and designed to function in certain ways. This does not mean that we never function in other ways, though it is important to grasp how we have and haven’t been equipped.
The Pharisees were not called to rebuke Christ, but because of their own understanding and pursuits, they didn’t “stay in their lane.” They took on the roles of prosecutor and judge, searching for ways to condemn Jesus; because this wasn’t the role God called them to, they caused great damage. They misused the Law and claimed they honored God.
Church, we struggle to “stay in our lane” too. Because of our understanding of the Word and personal stances, we have a tendency to take on the roles of prosecutor and judge with those around us.
These are not our default roles. Jesus was explicit about us putting on the judge’s robe in Matthew 7: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
James 4 is just as blunt: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?“
Has God called some to judge? Yes. In specific cases, with great responsibility and often with risk. In other words, it’s a role you want to honor if God calls you to it, but not voluntarily commandeer.
Here’s where we get tripped up: “What if someone is doing something wrong or is dishonoring God; if I don’t do something, aren’t I condoning or allowing the wrong?” We are afraid if we don’t confront perceived wrongs, things will get worse.
This betrays a limited understanding of God. Think of it this way: you are downtown and you see someone robbing a bank. It is wrong; but do you intervene? No; unless you are specifically trained and called for that, you do not try to stop it, but instead call those who are. Your lack of direct interference does not condone it, but allows those designed for that task to step in; it also keeps you from interjecting yourself and making matters worse.
Police are equipped to deal with bank robbers: God is fully equipped to address Law-breakers.
We treat judging and condemning others as actions that don’t carry ramifications. They do. If we aren’t called and equipped for it, we are like a bystander confronting bank robbers: we could get someone injured or killed, and make the situation worse. The good news is that just as the bystander’s role in that moment is to contact the right people, we have the ability to contact the One with all power and authority.
So what has God called us to? He has called us to be “Ambassadors of Christ”:
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.2 Corinthians 5:20
To be an ambassador is to be a representative. An ambassador of a country represents that country in a foreign land; an Ambassador of Christ represents Christ while being “in but not of the world.” Strong’s Concordance describes it “as someone respected as trustworthy (loyal, knowledgeable), especially in the opinion of those they know (belong to).”
God has called us to represent Him in the world. Just as an ambassador does not have the authority to unilaterally judge, but conveys issues to their leader to take action, ambassadors of Christ are not meant to be the judge, but convey concerns to God, the Judge. Because, again, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor?“
So when we use the Law to condemn others, we are not honoring God, but swerving out of our lane into God’s. That’s a head-on collision we will not win, nor will those around us in the vicinity of the crash.
Out of fear of losing their power and authority, a misunderstanding of scripture, or something else, the Pharisees took on dangerous motives and did not stay in their lane, leading to — at best — dishonoring interactions like that in the grain field, and — at worst — the murder of the son of the God they desired to serve.
If we are not careful, fear of losing something — our way of life, power or reputation — a misunderstanding of scripture, or something else, could lead us to take on dangerous motives and stray from our lane. In our efforts to uphold the Law of God, we can break the greatest commandments. In our desire to honor God, we can dishonor Him.
Let’s be clear: the question you should be asking is not “is my stance right?”
The “rightness” of your stance is too simplistic a way to engage a complex reality.
Introspection is needed. Right now, think about the things that are driving you, the stances that are important to you, and the current actions you are taking; ask yourself:
- Am I operating outside of how God has called and equipped me? Am I serving as a judge? What unique lane has God given me the privilege to serve in?
- How can I genuinely check my motives? What personal desires or opinions could allow me to justify motives that could dishonor God?
- Above all, how can I ensure I am loving God and loving others? How can I ensure I am loving the living God, and not a concept of God?
These are just examples; you can ask what you’d like in order to engage in honest and humble introspection.
None of us wants to be like the Pharisees who condemned the men who were literally Christ-followers, and condemned Christ himself, believing all along they were right; until we own the reality that we have functioned in that way, we are destined to continue.
Fortunately, the same patience and grace Jesus extended to the Pharisees, he extends to us. He will reveal our misunderstanding and offer an invitation to a better way; will we have ears to hear?
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