Jesus readily embraced all who approached him in faith.  He healed them, forgave their sins.  His severest censures were reserved for the Pharisees.  The gospels record a number of instances of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus challenged them.  They tried to entrap him, to discredit him.  Those confrontations became increasingly stronger, eventually leading to Jesus’ death.  In light of that conflict we tend to take a negative view of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees, however, also offer what might be described as a good example in a negative way.  We can learn from them what not to do.  To put it a bit differently, we can see in them faults which we must be on our guard against in our own lives.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for imposing impossible burdens on people.  In Matthew’s gospel (23: 4) we read: “They tie heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them?  Not they!”  Religion for the Pharisees had become completely externalized.  They focused on material exactness in observance of the hundreds of rules they thought were contained in the Law of Moses.      The   ideal for them was to achieve material exactness.  Their attitude poisoned their observance.  Their extreme legalism blinded them to the purpose of the Law.

Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees does not mean he was against the Law. He said: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to complete them.” (Mt. 5: 17)  That statement suggests that while both letter and spirit have their importance it is crucial to achieve a balance between them.

The Pharisees erred in placing extreme emphasis on the letter of the law and over-looking the fact that salvation ultimately depends on God’s grace, not on meticulous observance of rules.

The opposite error consists in stressing the spirit to the point of making concrete norms irrelevant.  Statements by advocates of Situation Ethics provide examples of this extreme.  Love is the only absolute.  Anything is good if it is done from love.


The balance to be achieved is between Christian reverence for the law and the legalism of the Pharisees.   Balance consists in realizing that while all our activity is to be motivated by love (love of God, love of neighbor) there are definite ways in which love ought to express itself.  To think otherwise would be treating the Ten Commandments as though they were merely suggestions.