Being an itinerant (‘hit-run’) preacher has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions… And they knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue:
‘Who knows who the Pharisees were?’ They did. ‘The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament – particularly Matthew.’
‘Now tell me all the good things you can think of about the Pharisees.’ I wrote them up on a blackboard:
The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their church; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended ‘church’ regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they’d even cross the ocean – a fearful thing for Jews – to win a convert).
There was a deep silence. I asked ‘Peter’ sitting at the front: ‘What’s wrong?’ He pointed to the list and said ‘That’s us!’ ‘Is it?” I responded. ‘Then you’ve got a problem: Jesus said these sorts of people are children of the devil!’
Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: ‘What’s so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?’ Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like ‘This is the greatest/most important thing of all…’ none of the above were emphasized by him.
So what was Jesus’ emphasis? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King … And, from two Gospel verses the evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed – Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 – justice/love, mercy, faith.
None of these were on the Pharisees’ list. But they’re the most important of all, according to Jesus. Have you noticed items like justice/love don’t get into our creeds or confessions of faith or ‘doctrinal statements’ either 🙂 ? (I’ve written a book about that: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals