The Letter Can’t Save You
One of the things that always grabs my attention in the gospels is Jesus’s reaction to the Pharisees. We know Jesus is perfect good and perfect mercy. We also know that among all the groups of people Jesus encounters in the gospels, the Pharisees are the ones whose actions and attitudes seem most offensive to Jesus. He consistently calls out the hypocrisy of their behavior and invites them to a more authentic and merciful way of living their faith. The presence of all these interactions makes me very certain that I don’t want to be like a Pharisee. I want to do everything I can to avoid behaving like them because I don’t want to offend Jesus.
Because of this, it’s important to me to understand what, exactly, the Pharisees are doing that is so offensive. I want to understand the root of the problem instead of blindly following a way of being that I don’t understand.
Recently, God was so good as to show me one of the ways that the Pharisees were missing the mark—and He used my love of language to do so. It’s funny (or, more accurately, astounding) how God can speak to us precisely in the way we will best understand. During a meditation on the gospels, I was thinking about the Pharisees’ unwavering commitment to the letter of God’s law. Following God’s law is good, of course, and so I was struggling a bit with this reality.
Then, God nudged me in such a way that I realized that the letter is incomplete. A letter, as in a letter of the alphabet, on its own is not very useful and doesn’t make sense. When you put multiple letters together, though, you get a word, and then the letters take on meaning. The meaning of the word is infinitely more powerful than the sum of the meanings of each individual letter.
And here is the key to understanding why following the letter of the law is incomplete, and by itself meaningless: God gave us His Eternal Word, Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus, who is perfect Love, that the law takes on meaning and becomes complete. When we put the law in the context of love and mercy, then suddenly, everything makes sense. We become able to live out the law not for its own sake, but out of love for God.
The Pharisees were living with individual letters and without the Word. Their law didn’t make sense, and as they rejected love and mercy, they were doing little more than creating an impossible and arbitrary standard for themselves and their fellow Jewish believers. Now, two thousand years later, may we follow God’s commandments while always building our behavior on the foundation of love.