“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23:27–28
The definition of legalism is, “Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription especially to the letter rather than the spirit.” The Pharisees added so many regulations to the Judaic religion there wasn’t a rational way a Jew could remember or follow all of the 613 laws and regulations. However, the Pharisees had a tendency to display an outward from of religiosity, but inwardly were unrighteous. They were overtly concerned about the sins of others while displaying themselves as the most righteous, but were filled with sin.
The Hypocrites — they think they are over-reaching Allah, but He will over- reach them: When they stand up to prayer, they stand without earnestness, to be seen of men, but little do they hold Allah in remembrance; (Surah An-Nisa, 142)
The traditions of men had replaced the commandments of the Word of God. Matthew 15:3 states regarding the Pharisees, “They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” In fact, the four hundred years leading up to the birth of the Messiah was characterized by violence, injustice and corruption among the religious leaders.
Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path). (Surah Al-Baqara, 18)
Jesus pointedly expressed to the Jews who did not believe He was the Messiah, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not [a]the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches [b]others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever [c]keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of of scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is referring to the outward show of religiosity but without the inward compassion and love that leads to mercy and just behavior. This is exemplified in the Old Testament book of Micah (Micah the prophet was a younger contemporary of Isaiah who identified with the “common people” and addressed the many social ills of his time):
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction, (Surah Al-Baqara, 16)
The Pharisees were very much like the Mutawa (religious police) in today’s Saudia Arabia that enforces the numerous Wahabi religious prohibitions in an inconsistent manner while many are corrupt themselves. The Mutawa are appointed to “censure abomination in a way that prevents commission of things which are unlawful and prohibited by Islamic law” (M.I. Al-Hedaithy, ‘Modernism and Islam in Saudia Arabia: Sociological Study of Public Morality Committees’, Durham E-thesis, PhD, 1989). However, when emphasis is placed on the outward form of a religion, the most important truths which lead to true piety are not followed. Let me remind you of these:
It is no virtue that you turn your faces towards the east or the west, but virtue is that one should sincerely believe in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Prophets and, out of His love, spend of one’s choice wealth for relatives and orphans, for the needy and the wayfarer, for beggars and for the ransom of slaves, and establish the Salat and pay the Zakat. And the virtuous are those who keep their pledges when they make them and show fortitude in hardships and adversity and in the struggle between the Truth and falsehood; such are the truthful people and such are the pious.
Quran (Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 177
Legalism is very much like an abusive parent who spanks their children repeatedly for every major and minor behavior infraction while not rewarding positive behavior or displaying kindness. Usually this parent disciplines in an inconsistent manner that subsequently creates more misbehavior instead of decreasing negative behaviors. Productive growth doesn’t occur in the darkness of fear, but only in the light of forgiveness, compassion and wisdom.
The corruption that legalism leads to is evident in the verses describing Jesus angrily turning over the money changers tables in the temple:
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ [a]den.”
A description of the dishonesty committed by the temple priests:
“During the high holidays, such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, certain priests took advantage of their status by setting up stalls inside the Court of the Gentiles. It would appear that, on this occasion, the market had spilled over from the Royal Stoa into the holy area. When Jesus, in parallel passages of three Gospels, declares, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46; see also Matt 21:13 and Mark 11:17, which echo God’s words from Isa 56:7and Jer 7:11), he would have been referring not to the Royal Stoa on the Herodian addition but to the profane activities that took place inside the sacred square precinct. As for Jesus’ accusation that the merchants had made it “a den of robbers,” there is abundant confirmation in the historical sources of the extortionate prices charged to those who bought sacrificial animals or who needed to change their money to pay the temple tribute. On one occasion, Rabbi, son of Gamaliel, caused a reduction of 99% in the price of a pair of doves, as recorded in Mishnah Kerithoth 1.7.
Ancient historian Josephus calls Annas the high priest “a great hoarder up of money.” The sons of Annas had bazaars (known in the Talmud as the hanuyot bney hanan) set up in the Court of the Gentiles for the purpose of money changing and the purchase of sacrificial animals. It was the combination of their greed, the fact that they brought in foreign coins, and that they carried out these activities in a sacred area that aroused the zeal of Jesus. This background can help us better understand why Jesus drove out these money changers and why the priests, especially those of the high house of Annas, were so opposed to his teachings.” ( Leen Ritmeyer, Archeological Architect, “Temple Mount and the Money Changers”)
The behavior of the legalistic self-righteous is contrasted with the true piety of Jesus in John 8:1–11:
“Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
‘Teacher,” they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, ‘All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!’ Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, ‘Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?‘
‘No, Lord,‘ she said.
And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
To condemn the woman and not punish the men who committed fornication with her was very typical during this time period. The key phrase that relates to the self-righteous position of a hypocrite is, “The law of Moses says to stone her.” The law of Moses states that both parties are to be brought forward and two witnesses must be provided (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 17:6, 19:15, 22:22–24). However, the teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees were not interested in justice, but were far more interested in trapping Jesus. By writing in the dirt, and stating that whoever has never sinned can cast the first stone, he is turning a mirror onto their own sin. It is highly likely Jesus was writing the names of the men present who had sex with her, and pointing out the sin of their hypocrisy. In this case, Jesus took the Law of Moses further (fulfilling the law) by forgiving which allows for repentance of the sin.
In some countries today the same hypocritical behavior is still occurring by punishing not only the men who commit the crime of rape, but punishing the women who has been raped. In a legalistic society, it is not uncommon for women to be punished just for being out in public without a male escort. Unfortunately, the men in these countries believe that if a woman is alone, then she is contributing to the rape because men don’t need to be held accountable for having sexual self-control.
Furthermore, the lack of forgiveness in legalism due to excessive unjust punishment techniques does not allow for repentance, and a return to grace. Recently, I met a young man who was raised in a Christian household. He became extremely ill with Lyme disease in High School which continued for six years. After ongoing prayers by his family’s church, relatives and friends, he didn’t get well. He was so ill his weight went down to 99 lbs which severely limited his activities. But, because God wasn’t healing him he came to the conclusion that God didn’t really exist and became an apostate or atheist.
Later he decided to pursue a medical career so he could study the possible transference of Lyme disease from person to person because his father had the illness before he began showing symptoms. Since he was interested in Osteopathy he attended an information session on Naturopathy and met a woman who claimed to be a faith healer. He desperately prayed, “If you really exist God, then heal me.” She laid hands on him and prayed. He felt tingling throughout his entire body and was instantaneously healed. Subsequently, he has decided to pursue a ministry career in faith healing. If this young man was Muslim and lived in Saudia Arabia he could have been punished by death for apostasy. Allah had no intention of letting this young man permanently fall away and is using him for the ministry.
Some of the names of Allah in the Qur’an: compassionate, beneficient, gracious, merciful,holy, perfect, pure, source of peace and safety, guardian, honorable, repeatedly forgiving, utterly just, forbearing, indulgent, much forgiving, loving, advocate, helper, restorer, protecting friend, friendly Lord, ever relenting, pardoner, forgiver, pitying, equitable, patient.
Allah does not control us by fear — that is usually the works of Satan. The only way for us to grow spiritually is by Allah’s love and forgiveness. When we live in an atmosphere of mistrust, anxiety, and persecution our hearts become cold and calloused. This leads us astray from The Straight Path. A religion that has at its focus submission to Allah, and then to make its primary objective punishment is to deny the truth to its spiritually hungry citizens.