Rules are good to have. This seems like an odd thing to say. Rules provide structure. If you remove a goldfish from its bowl, it’ll begin to quickly desire the rules that give life. We see rules as restrictive and oppose anyone who will impose rules on us. We’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with rules and even jump to calling people “Pharisees” when they try to point to rule following in Christianity. The debate gets confusing when we start saying that Jesus gives us freedom from rules and then we go read something like the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus seems to give lots of rules. These rules are a measurement of fruit. If you claim to be a follower of God and you don’t show love to others, the God you are following might be an idol you’ve created.
To better understand deep emotion behind what Jesus is saying and the response of the scribes and Pharisees, we need to look at who they actually are. The Pharisees were a politically driven group who were concerned with imposing rules on others so that God might recognize Israel’s holiness and come to establish his kingdom. This has less to do with holiness of the nation and more about manipulation of people so that they might strongarm God into bringing the kingdom. When the kingdom is established, who would be at the top of political power? Is it right for political groups to legislate morality to make a nation holy? This conversation gets messy. Jesus’ major point to them is that they impose morality on others in one area while ignoring justice, mercy, and love in other areas. The Pharisees were not only a political group but also a social pressure group. They are like news reporters who blow the whistle on others but do not live to the same level of integrity they call out. The “scribes” were literally people who were trained in writing legal documents. They were the “lawyers” and “religious teachers” who were more focused on implementing God’s law while ignoring God’s grace, love, and justice.
The rules are supposed to there to liberate people, not restrict them. When our own human agendas get in the way of God’s love and mercy, rules and laws become restrictive rather than liberating. Where do you see people using God’s law for their own benefit? In what ways do you see the rule of Christ as liberating in your life?