Letting Go of Legalism

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Several years ago Dave and I bought an older home in Ohio. The house was perfect for us and our young kids, with a large flat backyard and nice bedrooms.

We were young homeowners, so we worked really hard to follow the rules of good homeownership. We mopped the floors and vacuumed the carpet and scrubbed the counters and cabinets. We watered the plants and took out the trash.

The kitchen was one of our favorite spots, having lived mostly in apartments, with all of the cabinets and space to cook, so we made sure it was especially clean. There was even a corner cabinet, with one of those lazy susan spinning storage shelves built right in, which was perfect for all of the kids’ crackers and snacks.

But one evening just after we finished cleaning up from dinner, I heard Dave yelp in the kitchen. I went running in just in time to see him slam the lazy susan cabinet door shut.

There was a mouse.

In the corner cabinet. It had found a steady source of snacks with the saltines we had stored in there. And the mouse, surprised by Dave’s opening of the cabinet, had leapt off of the lazy susan, right toward him. But he had shut the door quickly enough that it was trapped.

We had a few possibilities. The obvious solution seemed to be to burn down the house.

A second option would be to just never use that cabinet again.  But reason prevailed, and Dave headed off to the store for mouse traps. I went to hang out (hide from the mouse) in the living room. The kids were in bed and Dave was gone so the house was silent.

Then I heard it. The sound that will haunt me forever. The quiet scratching off a mouse on the inside of the cabinet. And then I heard another sound. My phone ringing – from where it was sitting on the kitchen counter just above the cabinet with the mouse it.

It could go to voicemail. There was no way I was going in there.

What we learned during the mouse event of that year (in addition to how to work a mouse trap) was that the surface of our home could be sparkly and clean, we could follow all the homeowner rules we knew to follow taking care of the outside of the house,  but what mattered most was what was lurking inside the walls.

Which is true for us too, as people.

We work pretty hard to get our outside life all cleaned up. We try to do the right thing, at least when someone else is watching, and try to make ourselves presentable. We are especially tempted to do that when it comes to our faith. We come to church dressed a little nicer. We clean up our language. We follow the rules we think Christians should follow (at least when we are at church) Rules in and of themselves aren’t a problem. Following the rules is a good way to stay on track.

But we can make an idol of anything.

Sometimes we Christians don’t just follow the rules. We fall in love with the rules.

 Because they are predictable. They provide certainty. There is a clear measure of success. They hint that maybe we can really be perfect on our own. There might be a gold star waiting in there for us.

The passage today is written to people who love the rules too. They have worked really hard to make their lives pure.

But here’s the problem: they love the rules more than they love God.

They are so concerned with doing everything right on the outside that they have neglected their spirit, they have forgotten why they follow the rules to begin with.  And we’ll see that Jesus doesn’t look at their good rule following on the outside and give them an A. No, he wants to look inside the walls of their lives and start from there.

So let’s take a look at the story from Jesus’ life in Luke 11. In this scene, Jesus is having dinner in the home of a Pharisee. Things between Jesus and the Pharisees were already tense. And considering the subtitle of this section in the Bible is “Jesus denounces the Pharisees” I don’t think this is going to get any better after they talk. It starts out in verse 37:

While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

Right off the bat, we know things are about to get interesting. The Pharisees were really into purity and being clean, especially when food was involved, and they even limited who they ate with at their table to keep things extra pure. Jesus has just come back from being with the crowds of people that tended to follow him around at this point, and he had done an exorcism. Then he waltzes over to the dinner table and sits down – without even washing his hands. Ewwww. Come on Jesus. Wash your hands. But for the Pharisees this was scandalous not only for him, but for them to be at the table with him. Jesus must have sensed their uneasiness, and not being one to mince words, he gets right to it:

 Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.  You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?  So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

Jesus sees the opportunity to challenge the Pharisees. For a group of people so very worried about what was on the outside, they paid little attention to their inner life. As long as they followed all the right rules and did everything to stay pure, that was enough. But Jesus says they are like cups that are sparkly clean on the outside but their inside tells a different story. (kind of like our clean kitchen with a mouse in the walls). Jesus tells them that God doesn’t just care what they do on the outside. God is also concerned with their heart.  He keeps going:

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.

In other words, the Pharisees are doing all kinds of holy, pure things like tithing mint but they aren’t doing the works that show the justice and love of God. The things they are doing might make themselves look good to other people, and might even be what the law asks of them, but it isn’t helping anyone else.

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.

Again,  the Pharisees have been concerned with appearances, taking the best seat in the house, looking for things that would make others impressed with them.

Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”

Boom. This one is good. Walking over a grave in their culture at that time would make you unclean, so it was a requirement that all graves be marked so that someone wouldn’t accidentally defile themselves by walking across a grave unaware. This is the kind of law that would have been really important to the Pharisees. And Jesus turns it on them, and says that they are like an unmarked grave, that their inner life is so corrupt even though their outer appearance seems so holy, that people come in contact with them accidentally and are corrupted by being around them without knowing it.

One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.”

Okay, so now another group of people are identified at the dinner,  the lawyers. The lawyers have watched how quickly Jesus has been to point out the failings of the Pharisees, and want to make sure Jesus isn’t including them in these critiques. “Excuse me, teacher…. You can’t possibly have meant to do this… but it sounded like you were saying we were doing these things too and we are a bit offended.”  They probably shouldn’t have said anything. Because now Jesus turns to talk to them:

And he said, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.

The lawyers were happy to do their job in defending the law and putting legal restrictions in place. But the law of God was meant to be a blessing to God’s people. To keep them on the right track, to help them be holy. But the lawyers were using it as a burden, telling them what was right or wrong but not helping them stay on the right path. Then it gets even more personal:

 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.

Jesus brings up something the lawyers were probably hoping he didn’t know, or that it at least wouldn’t come up. The fathers of the lawyers had been among the people who had killed the prophets of God. So even though the lawyers claimed to be big fans of the prophets and their teachings, it was in fact their families who had persecuted the prophets. 

 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.

Then Jesus goes on to connect his own persecution and death, as well as the death of his followers, with these prophets.

Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

Jesus ends his speech to the lawyers with one more “woe to you” pointing out that the lawyers are actually keeping others from God’s wisdom instead of helping expand the kingdom.

 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

You would think they had learned their lesson, but instead the Pharisees regroup and begin trying to trip Jesus up with more questions.  

There is a lot of course correction for the Pharisees and lawyers in this passage. And before we stand next to Jesus and look at the Pharisees and lawyers like “yeah. You guys really missed the mark” we might want to see if we have some of these same tendencies.  Because we too are so focused on getting the outside of our lives in check – following the rules, doing the things that make us look like good people to everyone else, even trying to enforce those rules with other people – that we are tempted to  neglect our hearts, our inner life.

But Jesus works the other way around.

Jesus transforms us from the inside out.

When we decide to follow Jesus as a disciple, the first thing he wants from us is not to just clean up our lives and follow the rules. Focusing only on the outside is legalism, which is what the Pharisees and lawyers were really good at. That’s cups that are clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. That’s mice in the walls of a clean kitchen.

Jesus comes into our lives and wants to transform us from the inside out. He changes our heart first. This changes who we are, what we believe is important, how we see one another, what we see as our purpose here, how we gauge the success of our lives, how we see our own mistakes, even how we make decisions. Jesus wants to clean up the inside first, to make us more like him. Some of you might be thinking at this point, wait a second, don’t the rules matter?

Does it matter what we do? Of course it does.  

Jesus transforms us inside, and then we find that it shows up on the outside too. Because the outside stuff of our lives does matter. It matters to us, and it matters to God. It’s the product of a real faith in a God that changes us, which will then change how we live. It helps us see other people the way God sees them, which leads to the kinds of justice and love that Jesus calls out the Pharisees for having missing in their lives.

BUT it’s not what saves us. Only Jesus can do that. There is nothing about our goodness or pure behaviors or rule following that makes us perfect.

So this week in our series of Everything Jesus Taught, we are being called to let go of legalism, to let go of loving the rules instead of loving God.

What does this look like for you?

For some of you, the idea of letting go of your grip on the rules might be a little terrifying. Rules are a sure thing. Follow the rules, win the approval. And that might work, at least sometimes, in the world. But here’s the problem – it doesn’t work with God. There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love. It would never be enough. But the good news is that God loves you, just as you are. And if you can loosen your grip on the rules, just a little, you can cling to the God who saves you.

Others of you might be thinking – yeah, you legalists. Stop worrying about the rules and what other people think and just let God love you. For you, the challenge from Jesus’ teachings is to step back and look at your life, and look for evidence of God. If God has really transformed your spirit, then that will show up in how you love people, how you live your life. It’s not about the rules, it’s about the fruit of real faith.

And if you are someone here this morning who isn’t entirely sure what you think about Jesus, hear this:

If or when you are ready, he’s in.

Jesus loves you not because you are good but because you are you.  And if you are hesitant because of the way you have heard people talk about being a Christian, give it one more chance. Don’t listen to them. Look at who Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived, and make your own decision from there. He is in, if you are. And it can change your life. 

About the Author

Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan


More Things Jesus Taught about Letting Go of Legalism

  • Luke 20:46
  • Mark 7: 1-9, 12: 38-39
  • Matthew 15: 1-9
  • Matthew 12: 1-8, Mark 2: 23-28, Luke 6: 1-5
  • Matthew 5: 17-20, Matthew 25:35, Mark 13:31,  Luke 16: 16-17, 21:33

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