This weekend I did one of my occasional preaching gigs at my church. The topic was “what is a good Christian?” and the passages Matthew 11:25-30 and Romans 8:1-17. It’s kind of an introduction to a huge subject which is at the heart of Christian teaching.
The background to the passages is a religious environment in 1st century Judaism dominated by the Pharisees. In human terms, the Pharisees were not bad people – in fact, they could be seen as very good. They had a strict interpretation of the Jewish faith, believing it was essential to obey not only the entire laws of Moses, but various extrapolations, interpretations and additions to the law and prophets by Jewish rabbis. The result was 100s of different laws, dealing with issues from how to punish murderers to how men should cut their hair. Being faithful to God involved obeying all of these laws.
There’s nothing unique about the Pharisees. There are plenty of Christian Pharisees around, whole churches of them in fact. After the service, people told me about some that they’d attended, and they weren’t just lunatic fringe sects – ordinary mainstream churches only need a little nudge and you suddenly find they’re banning lipstick and dancing and making it compulsory to tell one person about Jesus per day. And of course there are plenty of Pharisees in other religions, like extreme Islamists.
In fact, I think there’s a little bit of Pharisee in all of us. When we’re under pressure, things seem a little out of control, or we feel ourselves in danger we reach for the law to protect us or give us certainty. Whether it’s tougher national security laws, cracking down on illegal immigrants or adding to the 60 pages of Council dog ordinances, we’re always ready to expand the list of laws we have to obey. The church is just the same, as centuries of canon law attest.
Both Jesus and Paul agree that there is a problem with this, and that it is not with the law – it’s with people. Their responses provide an interesting contrast.
Jesus (Matthew 23), looking at the Pharisees from outside, responds with a surprising amount of anger. His response, while possibly a collection of saying from different times and places, reads like a tirade. They bind heavy burdens on people and then don’t lift a finger to help them. They slam the door of the Kingdom in peoples’ faces. They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. They are whitewashed tombs clean on the outside but full of death on the inside. They are the spiritual heirs to the murderers of the prophets.
Paul (Romans 7), the former Pharisaic rabbi, responds with despair at his failure to live by the code he taught. He knows what’s good, but finds himself unable to do it. His mind acknowledges that the law is right, but he is unable to make his body obey. “Wretched man that I am!” he exclaims, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” Perhaps it was this kind of despair that provoked so much anger in Jesus.
The answer offered by both is a spiritual and moral life based on relationships, not law. Jesus (Matthew 11:25-30) offers to share his knowledge of the Father with his followers, and offers us rest, a light burden, an easy yoke. Unlike the Pharisees, he is offering to help us bear our burdens.
Paul (Romans 8) explains how he sees this working. First, Jesus death “fulfils the just requirements of the law” and this somehow puts our sinful flesh to death, freeing the way for a life in the Spirit. Second, his Spirit lives in us and among us, giving us the power to live as we should. Third, God has adopted us as his sons and daughters, his heirs, so that we can call him “Dad”. We have the security of a loving, unbreakable family relationship.
Christianity is not a new law which replaces the old. We are not asked to troll the writings of the Apostles finding a new set of instructions to govern our new lives. Instead, we are being offered a different kind of life. In Galatians 3 and 4 Paul describes the law as something for our immaturity. It is the equivalent of a babysitter, a guardian who follows us and instructs us in how to live while we are unable to make such decisions ourselves. Now, however, we have come into our inheritance and gained our majority. We can live as adults, not as children. Don’t put yourselves back into slavery, Paul says, seeing children as the social equivalents of slaves. Maintain your freedom.
But how can we live? How do we know what to do? Paul’s answer is first of all, live by the Spirit, listen to its voice. Secondly, live in love (Romans 13), because in doing so you will follow the full intent of the law - and so much more, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount tells us. "Love does no harm to its neighbour." The challenge to live in love, not simply try and enforce a law, is the lifelong ethical challenge all Christians face.
It’s not easy to throw away our chains – they make us feel secure. But this is what Jesus and Paul are asking us to do. We should embrace our freedom, not retreat from it back into a new pharisaism.