I’ve been following Formula One racing for the past few years. The “formula” stands for an ever-changing list of rules that every racing team agrees to follow. From the design of the car, to their pit stop strategy, the whole sport is governed by this formula of rules.
Each year, the winning teams (besides having the most money) are the ones who interpret the rules in a way that gives them a competitive edge, while not technically breaking them. As you can imagine, the sport is full of reviews and appeals. Teams always accuse each other of breaking the formula. The key to success in Formula One is knowing how to use the rules to break the rules.
We may not be in Formula One, but this dynamic is all too common. We reduce “purity” or “keeping the rules” to a technicality. When we allow the commands of Jesus to operate on a mechanical or technical level, we destroy the spirit of the command. It’s something that Jesus warned against. He called it the “leaven” of the Pharisees. In Mark 8, Jesus used the concept of leaven or yeast to describe how a little error can affect the whole. Just like a little yeast causes a large amount of dough to rise.
Today, a “Pharisee” is usually a synonym for “legalist”. This is problematic. Rules are not anti-gospel. You may have heard teaching that treats Jesus’ commands as impossible “asks”. To these teachers, Jesus’ commands simply function as a way to show us how bad we really are. The commands of Jesus do show us our shortcomings. And they point us to faith in Jesus who kept them on our behalf. But if we stop there, we betray our own motives. We cannot use grace as an opt-out clause for obedience. (Romans 6) The faith we place in Jesus will, by his Spirit, conform our lives to embody the faith of Jesus.
So calling a Pharisee a “legalist” doesn’t fully describe the problem Jesus called, “the leaven of the Pharisees”. What the Pharisees cared about was purity that came from obsessive attention to the Jewish law. Time and again, Jesus clashed with the Pharisees who judged Jesus as impure, unholy, and a lawbreaker. Jesus’ understanding of purity and the Pharisees were in conflict.
It boils down to the purpose of the law itself. Jesus summed up the entire law by the relationship between two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The latter is an expression of the former. These are inseparably brought together in such a way that Paul would later write “love is a fulfilling of the law.”
But notice how often in the gospels the Pharisees oppose this interpretation in order to protect their conception of purity. They raged against Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, subverting their definition of “work”. They were scandalized by Jesus’ dining with not only a woman, but a prostitute at that. Prompting Jesus to challenge them with a question, “Do you see this woman?” (No, because all they could see was their own pursuit of “purity”) They slandered Jesus as a blasphemer when he healed a crippled man, and forgave his sins. It was Jesus’ way of saying this concept of purity had the backing of Yahweh.
The leaven of the Pharisees was not about their attention to the law, but their application of the law. The Pharisees were so committed to their own purity via law keeping that they pushed away their neighbors in an effort to stay pure. The kept the rules in ways that ultimately broke the rules. Purity in the way of Jesus cannot be established by pushing away your neighbor. This is why Jesus called them hypocrites. They paid attention to the rules in a way that compromised the spirit of the rule itself.
This leaven is all around us in the Church today. It is also within each of us. Anytime we adopt a concept of purity that protects ourselves from having to deal with the mess of people, we can be sure the leaven of the Pharisees has entered our life and our community. This sickens the heart of God, whose love for people moved him to embrace the scandal of the Cross. Our neighbor cannot be loved, and our purity cannot be proved, in spaces where “those people over there” are the real problem.
In communities full of this leaven, the borders of purity are patrolled violently and relentlessly. There are no entrances into the gates, no open seats at tables for breaking bread. Only a firm insistence that “we aren’t like those people.” Gatekeeping and gaslighting are weaponized. And the mark of purity in Pharisaical communities is not alignment with Jesus’ commands, but merely a pseudo-righteousness predicated on distance from sin, not sharing the burdens of fellow sinners together.
To be sure, purity matters in the Kingdom of Jesus. The book of Acts attests to this. Look no further than when the Spirit of Jesus brought down a powerful couple, who lied about their land sales in order to gain a standing and reputation in the Church. Purity does not harm our neighbor. Purity in the Kingdom of Jesus is a reflection of our commitment to loving God and our neighbor.
But so long as the Church serves as a harbor for “us” and a border against “them”. So long as the Church fights a Culture War predicated on keeping purity by complicity with power. The Church will serve to protect and harbor Pharisaical purity, and miss an opportunity by the Spirit of Jesus to embody the fulfillment of the law, to love God and love our neighbor. It’s hard to do that by pushing away your neighbor as evidence you love God.
Knowing the rules to break them may work in Formula One, but Pharisaical purity has a devastating effect within the communities of Jesus that ought to be marked by grace and righteousness.