The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’s day and Jesus clashed with them quite a bit. They were literally the ‘religious police’ of their day, judging and condemning those who did not live up to their impossibly high standards.
Near where I live, there’s a Planet Fitness gym; on the building there’s a huge banner that says, ‘judgment free zone.’ In our day, we frown upon judgment, in fact, we do everything we can to create safe spaces for people and help them feel accepted, rather than judged.
When we pick up the Bible and learn about the Pharisees, we’re quick to side against them, thinking we’d never be like them. They were so judgmental and we’re so accepting, we assume.
But I’ve got a secret to share with you: the role of the Pharisees in the Bible is to show us ourselves. Those who wrote the Bible needed a ‘mirror’ to show people what they were like, so they chose the Pharisees. When we look at the Pharisees, we’re supposed to see what we look like, for we are as judgmental as they are, despite our gym banners.
And the more unbelievable it seems to you that you are just as judgmental as the Pharisees, the blinder you are to the reality of your snobby, pharisaical heart; hence, the more important it is that the Bible shows us the Pharisees so we can see what we look like.
Here’s how this plays out in our short passage today, Mark 8:11-13. The Pharisees were up to their usual ways of judging Jesus, demanding he perform a miraculous sign for them to prove his claims. They were testing him. But Jesus knew how their hearts were operating, so he refused to comply. He sighed deeply in his spirit about the generation who demanded a sign. And then he left.
What’s really going on here and how are we like the Pharisees?
A Pharisee is anyone who thinks that we can look better in God’s eyes by keeping the law. “If I do this, then God will look with favor on me,” is the reasoning. Now look closely and you’ll see the telltale sign of the law, which is a conditional if/then statement. “If I do this…then this will be the result.”
Not only was Jesus’s day filled with the law, but also ours is today.
“If I lose weight, then people will like me more.”
“If I make more money, then I’ll be better off.”
“If I don’t do bad things, then I’ll be a good person.”
“If I keep the Ten Commandments, then God will love me more.”
You get the idea. Now, it’s important to realize that these sorts of law-conditional statements could be true! If you look a certain way, then people (albeit shallow people!) might accept you more. Again, that could be true, but that’s not the issue here.
The issue is whether or not our conditional mentality can give us more favor in God’s eyes. And Jesus’s resounding answer is, “No!”
But first he has to break our addiction to the law, and to do this, he cannot play along with our legal demands. So when the Pharisees come at him with their conditional statement, “If you perform a miraculous sign, then we will believe you…” Jesus must not comply, for if he did, then he’d be sanctioning the age-old law-mentality. It’s as if they tossed him a coin, but he let it drop to the ground.
So let’s use the analogy of a coin. There are two sides to the law coin, God’s and ours. On God’s side, the inscription reads, ‘If God does a miraculous sign for me, then I will trust him.” But on the other side of the coin, our side, the inscription is, “If I keep the law, then God will save me.” That’s the law coin in a nutshell, the coin humanity has been flipping for generations, down through the ages. On the one hand, we honestly believe that if we do the right things, then God will save us; and on the other hand, we honestly think that if God did a miracle for us then we would believe him.
But Jesus wants to take this kind of coin out of circulation and introduce a new coin to the world, the grace coin.
The grace coin has two sides, as well, God’s and ours. God’s side says, “I will not do a sign, but you can still trust me” and if you flip it over to our side, the inscription says, “You don’t have to perform any good work, and I will still save you.” And that’s where the real money is at.
By not giving a sign, Jesus does not validate their current system. Instead, he refuses to play along and challenges the world’s system of law and judgment. He wants us to doubt our current system so that he can introduce his radical new currency of grace, which is the greatest treasure the world can discover.
We can hang all the banners we want that say, ‘judgment free zone,’ but people will keep on judging until the world ends. Ironically, the only one who does not judge is THE Judge, himself, God. God doesn’t require us to keep if/then laws to earn his favor. He does not say to us, “If you do this, then I will accept you.” Humans do that, but God doesn’t.
Only humans say, “If I make all the correct choices, then I will live happily ever after.” That’s the way all our old myths go, but Jesus has a new, true myth for us, which says, “You can make all the wrong moves and still live happily ever after with me.” Jesus says to us, “Let’s make a deal, I don’t have to prove myself to you and you don’t have to prove yourself to me.” That’s the new formula of grace.
But grace has a jarring side effect to it: God won’t always perform for you when you ask him to. In fact, in order to shake the law coins from our tight pockets, he’ll gladly interrupt our current life system, so we stop flipping the law coin in his face. As he did with Job, God may cause things to happen in your life that make no sense at all. This is not to punish you, but to liberate you from your reliance on the law. Again, he doesn’t have to perform for you and you don’t have to perform for him, he wants and gives only love.
There is a tiny Pharisee lurking in every person’s heart, trying at all times to convince us of the law. This makes Jesus very sad. He doesn’t want anything to do with the spirit of judgment. Instead, he wants to pour his love into our hearts and make us worthy by his grace.
- Can you see a tiny Pharisee in your heart? What sorts of judgments about the world and others is he/she making? Why do you think this is the case?
- How can Jesus break our addiction to the law? (Think about how you might attempt to break the addiction in a loved one.)
- What do you think keeps you from realizing God’s love right now? Be honest and read over Mark 8:11-13 again. What might Jesus be doing in your life?