Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your Bible. Then examine the following to see if your spirit agrees. I have prepared these remarks using the NIV.
Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.
“Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase, The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person’s frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it’s known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually there’s little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of ‘correction,’ where it is ‘explained’ that this line is intended as a praise of lawyers.
“Whoever first came up with this interpretation surely must have been a lawyer. The line is actually uttered by a character ‘Dick the Butcher.’ While he’s a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements.
“The “kill the lawyers” statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2. Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The build-up is a long portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are cut down by sarcastic replies from the others. For example:
I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
“The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this. Far from being ‘out of context’ the usage is more true to the original than most people know.
“In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions.
“As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”
(Posted in 1997 by Seth Finkelstein at http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html, retrieved on 06/19/17.)
- The Picky (1+2).
The Pharisees & lawyers were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abusing the Law to further their own ends. Everyone knew the hand-washing regulations were not part of the Law given to Moses but were only a tradition started by rabbis. In Jesus’ time these rules were not widely enforced, so these guys were trying too hard to find fault with Jesus.
Here is one example of their tradition regarding hand-washing: “If a man poured water over the one hand with a single rinsing, his hand is clean: but if over both hands with a single rinsing, Rabbi Meir declares them unclean unless he pours over them a quarter-log or more.” (M Yadaim 2:1)
The Pharisees and lawyers were also “picky” in that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus. They wanted to make Him look like a bad Jew. Note that these religious professionals were from Jerusalem. They went all the way up to Galilee to find Jesus and “put Him in His place.” In spite of their effort, all they could find to confront Him about was the behavior of his disciples at dinner time.
This sounds petty to us and it was petty, but not in the minds of these religious leaders. When people are being legalistic, petty matters are molehills made to sound like mountains. This is a word of warning to us about legalism; it is used because it provides a cover for pettiness. Complaints that may be true in principle but not practicality are being used this way. Be wary of this practice.
THE TRADITION OF THE ELDERS was a body of rules written by religious leaders over several generations called the “Halakah.” The Pharisees attached a great deal of importance to this document and attempted to meet its requirements every day. It was so complicated that a new profession arose to help people navigate its requirements: these are the TEACHERS OF THE LAW mentioned here. We might call them “temple lawyers.”
Literacy was still not a common skill, so these TRADITIONS were largely maintained orally; the rabbi would train his students in them by having them recite them aloud. This rote method of teaching was the main way these TRADITIONS were preserved in succeeding generations.
- The Pig in a Poke (3-9).
Continuing our earlier connection with English literature, we understand the expression “buying a pig in a poke” to be an old English phrase that refers to buying something without seeing or knowing anything about it first. A “poke” is another word for sack. (The word “pocket” is derived from it – a “pokette” is a small sack.) It is not wise to buy without first opening the sack to check the condition of the pig!
The Pharisees attempted to sell Jesus a “pig in a poke” in their criticism of His disciples’ lack of hand washing etiquette. However, Jesus wasn’t buying it. He opened the sack and exposed the contents. Jesus exposed their legalism as hypocrisy – choosing their own traditions over God’s Law
God’s Law was clearly stated: children are to honor (obey) their parents. Exodus 20:12 is the 5th Commandment; “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG IN THE LAND THE LORD YOUR GOD IS GIVING YOU.” Jesus also quoted Exodus 21:17 which gave the penalty for violating this commandment: death. Think God takes this seriously? Yes, He does.
Jesus said this clear command had been nullified by a tradition created by the kind of people who were accusing Him. Leviticus 27:9+16 allowed for property and real estate to be designated as “Corban,” a state of dedication to the Lord (see Mark 7:11). This was to last until the next Year of Jubilee. Perhaps on this basis, they created a rule that a man could dedicate assets to the temple. If so, when his parents appealed to him for help, he could say to them, “I’d love to help you out, but my property is given over to the temple and I’m strapped for cash.”
With that kind of clear self-interest, the religious leaders created a way to make money and an excuse for the living to refuse all requests for philanthropy. In our time, it would be a combination tax shelter and charitable trust. Or it might be “fraud.” Jesus’ point is simple; hypocrites will attempt to wallpaper their crimes in pages from law books in order to excuse their violations of God’s Law and/or make themselves appear godly when their hearts are nowhere near God.
In case you’re not yet seeing it, let me assure you this is a full-bore rebuke by Jesus. It is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus referred to the Pharisees and lawyers – or anyone – as HYPOCRITES.
Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 using the Word of God to expose the true intent of their hearts. In effect, He rebuked them saying, “You believe you’re preserving traditions, but in reality, you’re guilty of the same hypocrisy the prophet Isaiah exposed.”
They replaced true faith which resides in one’s heart with superficialities. Instead of enacting the will of God, they misused the Law to force their will on others. The result: their worship was wasted because the rules they followed were just human notions, not the will of God.
Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.
We must understand what legalism is. I offer the reader five views of the subject that will attempt to define this sin and enable us to avoid manifesting it in our daily living.
Legalism is a complicated attempt to create rules that make us look good while relieving us of the hard work of character.
Legalism is an attempt to cloud the condition of the heart by burying the matter in complications. It is the old “smoke and mirrors” approach to misdirection.
Legalism mimics God’s Law, but is thoroughly man-made. It is thereby not authoritative for all who believe.
Legalism misuses tradition by asserting that the old ways are the only right ways.
Legalism is selfishly motivated and attempts to please one’s self; where true righteousness is focused on God and desires to please Him. We humans seem to have an infinite capacity to make excuses and manipulate words to justify self and/or condemn others. We need a higher authority.
The Jewish religious leaders in this passage are long dead and so are some of their teachings. But the practice of legalism is alive and well. It has users in the Church and outside it; the dogmatism of “political correctness” is a modern manifestation of legalism.
Indeed, the practice of legalism is so common (inside and outside the Church) and its consequences are so serious, the Lord has impressed on me the necessity of studying this passage in detail. Part Two will examine further aspects of Jesus’ condemnation of legalism.