The Pharisees 6 - Dangerous Definitions
Chan Gin Kai
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:1-5)
When Jesus’ disciples picked some grain from the grainfields to eat, the Pharisees criticised them for working on a Sabbath. According to the Pharisee’s definitions, the disciples had committed four violations; they had reaped, threshed, winnowed and prepared food. That’s four counts of work in just one mouthful of grain.
God had set the Sabbath as the fourth of the 10 Commandments so that everyone, including servants and even animals could have a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11). So to devoted Jews who want to obey God’s command, their next questions would be – When is the Sabbath? And what is defined as work?
It is not hard to define when the Sabbath is; it is the seventh day of the week. Since the Jews count the change of a new day at sundown (unlike our 12 midnight), Sabbath starts from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night.
But it was the definition of ‘work’ that created the controversies. The Jews went to great lengths and details to define what ‘work’ encompasses. For example, they cannot walk more than a certain distance, or heal the sick, or harvest the field, or prepare a meal.
In modern times, observant Jews do not operate electrical appliances during Sabbath; they won’t even press the lift button or make phone calls because that has been defined as work. In an infamous incident in 1992, a fire broke out in an apartment in an Orthodox neighbourhood in Israel. The tenants consulted with their rabbi to find out if they could call the fire department as that constituted work. In the half hour that it took the rabbi to tell them that it was an emergency and thus allowed, the fire spread and burnt down three apartments.
God’s purpose of instituting the Sabbath is to get us to rest from our work. But the Pharisees’ definition of ‘work’ became a legalism that trapped them and their devoted followers.
It is easy for us to be led astray, even when we are devoted. This happens when we become more engrossed in the details of the rules than the principles behind them.
Manmade rules and guidelines are very useful in helping us stay clear of sins. Like the dotted lines on a busy road, staying within the guidelines keeps us safe. However these manmade rules cannot become the definitions of righteousness. When we start treating guidelines as though they're the commands of God, we're in danger of becoming like the Pharisees.
Do we tithe 10 percent, or do we give sacrificially (Luke 21:1-4) and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7)? Do we attend just ‘enough’ church meetings to meet the definitions of commitment, or do we enjoy the gathering of the Body? Do we drop some money into the collection bag and deceive ourselves that we care for the poor? Do we strive to be righteous according to the guidelines, or Christ-like in the eyes of God? When we are simply into the rules, we may tread into the danger of ‘the bare minimum’, doing just enough to fulfil legalistic righteousness.
Another danger of simply obeying the rules is a discouraging feeling of guilt if we fail to meet these manmade definitions of righteousness. We feel unworthy or incompetent even though that’s not how God feels about us. On the other hand, we feel spiritual and self-righteous when we succeed, as though the ability to stay within the guidelines makes us better people and more deserving of God’s love. These feelings are unhealthy and do not draw us any closer to God.
As leaders in God’s kingdom, we have to take great care in how we teach people to obey God. Though it is very helpful to set guidelines so that they can learn how to practically apply the principles of the Bible, it is far more important to ensure they understand the principles behind them. It is admittedly easier to enforce guidelines than to help people embrace the principles. But it was the draconian policing of manmade rules and the judgment of people’s righteousness or sinfulness according to those dangerous definitions that made the Pharisees clash with Jesus. Guidelines are meant to help people, not burden them.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
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Chan Gin Kai
Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God".