[The Pharisees] tie up heavy loads and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them… Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. (Mt 23)
When approaching passages such as this one, it is crucial that we identify ourselves with the Pharisees who are being challenged by Jesus. Unfortunately, I suspect that we tend towards letting ourselves off the hook and glossing over remarks directed at the Pharisees because we assume that Jesus is confronting their Jewish ‘righteousness based on works’, whereas we all know that we are Christians saved by grace through faith.
However, this way of thinking grossly misrepresents the Pharisees and the Judaism(s) of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees, and the Jewish people in general, did not affirm a ‘works-righteousness’. Rather, they practiced a grace-based form of faith — by God’s gracious election they had been born into the people of God and now they acted in certain ways, not to ‘earn their salvation’ but to demonstrate their membership within that people. Thus, to use an oft-quoted phrase, the question confronting the Pharisees, just like the question confronting the recipients of Paul’s epistles, is not that of ‘getting in’ but that of ‘staying in’. In both cases, one is saved by grace and, in both cases, one remains in that grace by responding appropriately.
All that to say, I hope that this helps the contemporary Western Christian reader to begin to identify more closely with the Pharisees in the Gospels. Other factors strengthen this identification process — rootedness within places of privilege, and comfort; claiming high religious status for one’s self in relation to others; drawing strict boundary lines between members of the in-group and those outside; shunning many who are labeled as ‘impure’ or ‘sinners’; and so on.
Consequently, when we read of Jesus accusing the Pharisees of piling unbearable burdens upon the shoulders of others we should ask ourselves how we engage in this sort of activity.
Sadly, I believe that Christians on all ends of the spectrum do this all too frequently. Let’s take a few examples from opposite ends.
First, let us take the way that Evangelicals and Conservative Roman Catholics focus on the issue of abortion. It seems to me that a good many, perhaps the majority, of those who are outspoken in this issue are approaching it in the Pharisaic way that Jesus condemns. Without regard for that which motivates a person to have an abortion, the dominant Conservative Christian approach appears to be one that simply condemns abortion, and creates a sharp division between the high-status righteous (who are ‘pro-life’) and the low-status sinners who have had abortions.
Unfortunately, as I have argued in more detail elsewhere, abortion is primarily a symptom of (at least) three root causes: (1) poverty; (2) a lack of respect for the lives of the disabled (NB: anywhere between 80-95% of babies-to-be with Down Syndrome are aborted in the Western world); and (3) the pursuit of a lifestyle that prioritises one’s own comfort, status, and goals above all others.
Therefore, unless Christians are seriously addressing and responding to these core issues, there is a good chance that all their talk about abortion is simply placing unbearably heavy loads onto the shoulders of others. Unless Christians are genuinely journeying alongside of poor women and families, unless Christians are demonstrating a commitment to the disabled, and unless Christians are pursuing lives of sacrifice focused upon others, then there is a good chance that Jesus’ words in Mt 23 apply to those who speak against abortion.
Second, moving across the spectrum of Christian positions, let’s take the example of so-called Christian radicals, and those committed to alternative Christian lifestyles. Here, I’m thinking of those who buy locally grown organic foods, fair trade coffee, clothes not made in sweatshops, and those who avoid shopping at places like McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and so on. Now, while this is all well and good (I also try to live this sort of lifestyle — so this section of my post is directed at myself), it is absolutely crucial that those who live in this way don’t just tell others that they must try to live in this way; them must empower them do the same. After all, these things are much easier to do if one has a certain amount of wealth (to be able to afford more expensive fair trade or local items), a certain amount of life skills (to know how to prepare healthy meals), and a certain amount of education (to be able to discern which corporations and structures are corrupt and corrupting).
Therefore, if one simply pursues this lifestyle, as some sort of better way of living, without also helping to empower those who lack the requisite wealth, life skills, and education, then one has simply become like the Pharisees. Once again, one places unbearable burdens on the backs of others and replicates sharp boundaries between the high-status and privileged righteous (who live conscious of these things) and the low-status and poor sinners (who participate in evil structures).
Therefore, if Christians on all ends of the spectrum wish to avoid the damning criticisms of the Pharisees, raised by Jesus in Mt 23, we must engage in a public moral discourse that simultaneously analyses, invites, and empowers.