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Every good story has a villain. The New Testament has many, but the leaders of the pack must surely be the Pharisees. Unfortunately, these people were no mere figments of the imagination; they were flesh and blood.

During the discourse between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 23, the phrase: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” occurs no less than eight times. Such severe condemnation coming from the Master must have been well founded and accurate. What were the Pharisees doing wrong?

Let us look carefully at the words of Jesus:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude and to his disciples, saying, the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat…do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not…but all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi Rabbi’…Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, and say, if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that you are the children of them which killed the prophets (Matt. 23:30).

Avoiding the same mistakes

The thrust of this scathing criticism of the Pharisees appears to be pride and lack of mercy. Do we readily endorse these two elements of wickedness without stopping to consider that we are remarkably capable of making the same mistakes? That is a very uncomfortable thought!

Sometimes there is much to learn from what is not said. In this case, our Lord did not berate the Pharisees because they had failed in their application to the study of the law and scriptures. He doesn’t even discuss their knowledge other than to say they were so caught up in its details that they failed to see its purpose. In fact, it appears that knowledge was their undoing and the source of their pride. They may have been experts in the law and prophets, but sadly the Pharisees had not fully understood and integrated the two words so often repeated in the Psalms: mercy and truth: “Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will he teach sinners in the way. The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great” (Ps. 25:8-11).

Caring for sinners

Notice the great act of mercy here — the Lord teaches sinners his way. The apostle Paul emphasizes this point to the Ephesians: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:3-6 NIV).

A merciful and loving God reaches out to wayward humankind, revealing Himself through His word. Thus begins a process whereby the knowledge of the way of truth produces a humble and contrite sinner who, recognizing his total dependence, calls upon the Lord for forgiveness and is then the further recipient of mercy.

Again this parallels the message in Ephesians, where Paul, after making a strong point about the mercy that God has shown the believers, goes on to say: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10 NIV). Having experienced the mercy (sometimes translated steadfast love) of God, the sinner should now reflect it in his own character and behavior.

One thing leads to another

The psalmist continues: “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Ps. 25:10). The mercy that God has shown has come full circle. Having experienced the love and mercy of God resulting in a change of attitude, a person earnestly strives to adhere to the covenants and testimonies of the Lord.

There is another important point here. In order to keep covenants and testimonies, knowledge is required. To serve God you must know Him. The act of mercy by God in the first place can be summarized as His invitation to better understand Him. It takes a great act of mercy for God to approach a sinner and, with His revealed truth, call them to repentance. In response, we must develop meekness and in turn learn to show mercy. Do we see here how closely mercy and truth are intertwined and inseparable? Truth is vital and mercy is vital.

The problem with the Pharisees was that they had only half the equation. They had a profound knowledge of the Old Testament yet had not grasped the fact that God desired “mercy not sacrifice…” (Hos. 6:6).

A good tree bears fruit

We have graciously been made aware of divine truth. Does it invoke a sense of mercy and love within us, or does it invoke a Pharisaical sense of pride and isolation (intolerance of others)?

Knowledge is wonderful and necessary. It is the spring from which salvation flows. Without study we cannot know God, and we force ourselves into a position of dependence upon someone else to tell us about Him. We must know for ourselves. We must learn from scripture in order to make wise decisions within the ecclesia and our personal lives. Paul says to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). The emphasis is not on the study of the truth in and of itself, but the application of its principles and precepts in our lives.

God requires that we produce the fruits of the spirit that develop when the seed of truth has been planted and nurtured. There is nothing more true than love; there is nothing more true than mercy, humility and patience. These characteristics are the fruits of which truth is the seed. If we plant the seed of truth, we reap love.

We learn from the apostle’s letter to the Romans that, as Gentiles, we have been grafted onto the natural tree of Israel. Let us not forget the tree that failed to yield fruit: “Now in the morning, as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever. And presently the fig tree withered away” (Matt. 21:18-19). As spiritual Israel, it behooves us to bear much fruit.

Mercy and truth in action

It is very easy to get caught up in seeking knowledge. Studying can sometimes become an exercise of self-gratification and of proving oneself rather than for the purpose of understanding more fully the Lord and His plan. When this attitude is allowed to develop, the disease from which the Pharisees suffered begins to surface; today it is called intellectualism. It breeds pride, elitism and the sense of false superiority. Our challenge as brethren and sisters in Christ is to respond to the knowledge of the wonderful gift of truth and mercy in a way that is pleasing to God.

When we stand before the Son of Man we shall be judged for our loving response and actions: “I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…” (Matt. 25:31-37).

Now our attention turns to the memorials of him who spoke those words. We think about his understanding of scripture and the most sincere act of love and mercy that has ever been shown. Brothers and sisters, let us walk away this morning renewed in our spirit, having our hearts softened, ready to put our truth into practice.

“Do not let mercy and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:3-4).

Ben Brinkerhoff

Suggested Readings
I am always intrigued by how Jesus taught. For instance, in today’s reading in Matthew 9, in reaction to the Pharisees judging him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus tells them to, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (v13).
Grace, mercy, and peace are too important to be dismissed and describe significant aspects of salvation.
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