“The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”
–Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949/2001), 22.
So I have this friend who hates legalists. I mean hates. And he has a saying that goes something like this: “Legalism sends more people to Hell than alcoholism.”
My friend is a little zealous, but he’s probably right. Mind you, both alcoholism and legalism are to be avoided if at all possible, but most often, the alcoholic has a leg up on the legalist. For the alcoholic usually knows that he has a deep need, even if he isn’t asking for help. The legalist however…not so much. And recognizing our need is the half way point to Jesus.
The Pharisees and Scribes were clearly not even half-way there. As far as these men knew, they were keeping all the rules and had no need of God’s help. Their encounter with Jesus is told in the first few verses of Matthew 15, where Jesus challenged them…
“…you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;”
-Matthew 15:5-8 (ESV)
In this case, legalism actually led to disobedience. More often, it only leads to disinterest…in God. Why cry out for help if you can keep the rules on your own? Like Isaiah intimated, legalism moves our hearts far from God.
Once a newspaper asked for answers to the following question: “What’s wrong with the world?” And G.K. Chesterton famously replied: “Dear Sirs, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” The religious leaders would have never answered this question like that. As they saw it, the problem was with the prostitutes and tax-collectors, or with the Roman thugs who occupied their beloved land. But the issue was never with them. They were doing life right.
So when the Messiah came, they saw no need for Him. They were doing fine on their own, thank you very much. And so we learn from the Pharisees that there is more than one way to earn a trip to perdition: First, there is the way we’ve always known – the irreligious way, the Prodigal Son in the land of sin. And then there is the way of the Pharisees themselves, the way of the Elder Brother. As Tim Keller says,
“Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”
-Tim Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith