After a week of incredible and breathtaking scandal in the British Parliament and with recriminations flying, calls for resignations, and a mad scramble for the moral high ground I find my thoughts turning to a familiar Bible theme. There are significant parallels it seems to me between the way politicians have been behaving and the conduct of the Pharisees in the New Testament. The problem in each case is the same; “integrity” without God is hypocrisy.
The Pharisees fall into the category of religious and cultural purists fighting against long-standing efforts to reconcile Hebrew religion with Greek philosophy. Aiming for integrity in your faith is a noble thing but it can become religion for religion’s sake and this is what happened to the otherwise noble Pharisees. They defined and enforced their religion to the extreme, hedging it about with endless laws and regulations designed to ensure strict adherence.
This led inevitably to both strange and cruel interpretations and applications of the law as well as widespread abuses. They insisted, for instance, that on the Sabbath a man may spit on rocky ground but not on soft earth because it may make a furrow and that would constitute ploughing. Individuals found technicalities that allowed them to condemn others while excusing themselves. Famously, while the Law of Moses commanded that children should “honour your father and your mother” there was a technicality that allowed a man to absolve himself of any responsibility for his parents by declaring his money and property a gift to the temple. He wouldn’t actually have to part with any property, just pronounce it “Corban” or dedicated and then live off it with the declared intention of one day giving it to the temple and meanwhile no longer bearing any filial responsibility.
Their real problems started when they ran up against the One who gave the Law and found his standards and expectations very different from their own. Jesus made them look bad when they were working so hard to do good as they saw it. In Matthew 12 we see what happened when the ones who interpreted the Law came up against the One who gave the Law.
In this passage we read that, “Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” To the Pharisees Jesus’ disciples were ‘harvesting’ wheat and thus breaking the Sabbath; to Jesus they were hungry men being practical about meeting their needs. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” Jesus said.
As Jesus went into the synagogue they seemed to have a man with a withered hand there already set up to entrap him. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath”, they asked, clearly looking for an excuse to accuse and condemn him on the basis of the law. But Jesus replied, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?” The man was duly healed.
Finally, we see Jesus heal a demon-oppressed blind and mute man. Determined now to not be impressed the Pharisees ascribed the miracle to Satan and accused Jesus of serving Satan. Of course, Jesus response was again perfect reason; if Satan casts out Satan then Satan is divided against himself. What was worse however was their denial of the power of the Holy Spirit, a show of their total opposition now to what Jesus had clearly and consistently demonstrated was of God; the sin against the Holy Spirit.
The aims of the Pharisees were noble, that is, to serve Israel by maintaining a pure religion but their means of achieving this end were heartless, putting their rules before God and the outcome was a disaster because, as Jesus said, their rules demanded sacrifice but allowed no mercy. They sought to serve the God of mercy by becoming a merciless religious regime.
In the same way, our politicians have set out, most of them, with the best of intentions, to serve the community in which they live and represent them in Parliament. However, they have, over generations, drafted rules for themselves that are politically convenient and interpreted without any moral compass but in ways that simply “apply” the rules. This has led to widespread abuse and, like the young man who absolves himself of any responsibility for his parents by “sticking to the rules” of Corban, they too easily declare themselves as acting within the law while ignoring entirely their original purpose to serve the wider community.
Like mercy, morality cannot be legislated; you are either merciful or you are not; either a man or woman of good moral standing or you are not. It depends I suppose on who and what influences you. This week has shown that neither mercy nor morality is ultimately attainable without God. Men and women when left to their own devices might entertain the best of intentions declaring themselves prepared to make any sacrifice to serve the community but without God such intentions and such service will lack both mercy and morality because without God everything is relative and everyone will do what seems right to them at the time.
We should pray for our leaders and for our country that the good and the godly will rise up and demonstrate service that is truly sacrificial and that is informed by both mercy and integrity that can only come from the God who is both merciful and true to his word.