“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
I am a Pharisee. Oh, not a member of a particular sect of Judaism, yet still a product of a religious system as steeped in tradition and rules as in Jesus’ time. Specifically, I am one who has reduced the freedom and beauty of God’s redemption through the atoning death of Jesus to a set of rules to be followed. And I judge those who don’t obey those rules to my satisfaction as being inferior to me.
Every religion in the world is basically a system of rules and regulations, a set of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The degree to which one progresses in the religion, the level to which one attains the goal (the goal of every religion is always basically godliness — or God-ness) is measured by how well one obeys the rules.
The thing that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is just this. While religion is man’s attempt to get to (or become) God, Christianity is God reaching down to man. The true truth of Christianity is that God has done all the work and there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation or get God to like me more. Unfortunately, for the most part the modern Church has reduced that marvelous gift to a set of rules to follow. “I don’t drink, smoke, dance, cuss, or chew, or go with those who do.”
The Pharisees were not intentionally evil people. James Michner paints a beautiful picture in “The Source” of an ancient rabinnical scholar who so loved and revered the Torah (the Law of Moses) that he helped craft the rules and regulations that interpreted the law. They realized that transgressing the law was heinous in God’s sight, so they wanted to create a “fence” of rules around the law, such that even if one broke a rule, the law was still intact.
However, by Jesus’ day those rules had become a crushing weight around the neck of the people. No one, except the elite few, could ever know them all, much less obey them. The Pharisees, then, held themselves up as the standard of goodness.
It is a fact that the normative response of a soul reborn by the grace of Christ is to do good works. But the modern (evangelical) church has implied (if not stated outright) that it is the responsibility of the sinner to manifest these good works as a precondition to acceptance. This heresy puts the cart before the horse, demanding the fruit of new life in Christ prior to receiving new life in Christ. This emphasis on external works is the yeast of the Pharisees that Jesus warned against.
Like alcoholism, Phariseeism has no cure. The best one can do is to recognize the weakness and purposefully and repeatedly let go of the rules and the judgements, and return to the cross. I am a debtor to grace. I am a recovering Pharisee.