Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income’. But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-17 NLT).
The Pharisees were members of a faction of Judaism that based their customs on a legalistic interpretation of the Old Testament. Their religion demanded strict and detailed practices which, according to them, would lead to holiness. Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they had an “appearance” of righteousness, but their hearts were full of evil (Luke 11:43-44). The Pharisees thought that their traditions and interpretations made them more righteous than others and that they would gain God’s favour in this way. This did not turn out to be the case, as God allowed their religious system to be destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE.
The Pharisees had rules about extremely minimal things, such as tithing even the smallest herbs and numerous cleanliness rituals (Matthew 23:23). On one occasion, they were shocked because Jesus and his disciples didn’t wash their hands up to their elbows before eating, as was their custom (Mark 7:2-5; Matthew 15:2).
In the same way, many modern religious groups who claim to have the “truth”, despise or punish all those who do not agree with their particular rules or Biblical interpretations. These groups give great importance to formalities and appearances, criticizing the way people dress, shave or cut their hair, and scorning everyone who does not think like them or do what they say. Some of these groups refuse to speak to or greet those who do not follow their rules and even force family members of these “unrepentant sinners” to do the same, leading to unbearable heartache and pain.
Jesus, on the other hand, warned his followers to avoid becoming judgmental and legalistic. He said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5) We should never forget these words if we really want to please God.
Jesus compared superficial and legalistic religion to a “rotten tree” that produces “worthless fruit”, that is to say, it makes the heart bitter and is no use to God (Matthew 7:15-23 NWT).
Jesus also reminded the legalists of his time what God had said to their forefathers: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice” because “doing righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a, Proverbs 21:3 NKJV, Matthew 9:13; Micah 6:6-8).
“Pure and genuine religion”
“What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world” (James 1:27). This means that genuine Biblical religion is not a denomination, and has nothing to do with rules and rituals. In fact, it consists of carrying out certain acts of mercy and kindness towards others, particularly the most vulnerable.
Consequently, Jesus didn’t give a list of rules when he explained how to identify his true disciples. He simply said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
“Love covers over a multitude of sins”
The reason why Jesus exalted love over rules is that he knew that God is the only one who is entitled to judge. To avoid legalism, we must love and forgive one another rather than judging each other. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t imply turning a blind eye and accepting sin; it is a response to repentance and recognition on the part of the sinner. Jesus gave us guidelines to resolve disputes between Christians; saying to his disciples: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV).
Of course, it goes without saying that this procedure refers to “faults” and “sins” and not criminal offenses such as murder, rape or child abuse.
Sadly, some religious groups twist Jesus’ words according to their legalistic viewpoint and impose cruel punishments on members who “refuse to listen” to the church. They shun “sinners” and even force family members to do the same, mistakenly assuming that 1st Century tax collectors received the same treatment. The truth is that it was impossible to avoid talking to a public official who collected taxes for the government.
Moreover, some cults and high control groups shun former members, thus preventing people from leaving the group as they risk losing contact with their closest family members and friends.
Another Bible verse that some legalistic religions often use to justify this practice is found in 1 Corinthians 5:11, which says: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people”.
It is clear that neither this passage nor the previous one mention that we should shun the brother or sister who has “sinned”. Otherwise, how would it be possible to accomplish the Biblical purpose of discipline, which is to “admonish” and “restore” them? Paul clarifies this in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother”. In Galatians 6:1, he also writes: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently“.
How can we consider ourselves as “spiritual” if, instead of admonishing and gently restoring our brother or sister who has committed a sin or fault, we stop talking to them altogether? It is evident that this cruel practice of shunning is not supported by the Bible in any way.
By contrast, Paul said: “It is enough that this person has been punished in this way by most of you. Now, however, you should forgive him and encourage him, in order to keep him from becoming so sad as to give up completely. And so I beg you to let him know that you really do love him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8 GNT).
This is the Christian way. It is guided by the “fruit of the Spirit”, which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). This fruit overcomes legalism, for “against such things there is no law”.