First of all, how to become a legalist (thanks, Mark Driscoll):
- Make rules outside the Bible.
- Push yourself to try and keep your rules.
- Castigate yourself when you don't keep your rules.
- Become proud when you do keep your rules.
- Appoint yourself as judge over other people.
- Get angry with people who break your rules or have different rules.
- "Beat" the losers.
Jesus ran into legalists all the time. Most of them were called Pharisees. In the passage I read the other day, from John 12, they are planning to put him to death. Mary (of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) anoints Jesus' feet with very expensive ointment, a beautiful gesture of love and devotion that must have brought tears to Jesus' eyes as he contemplated the path ahead of him, leading down to his death. Enter Judas. Yes, Judas Iscariot, the traitor, the one who betrays Jesus to his death two pages later. Judas, in all his legalistic wisdom, says, "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" Can you imagine being Mary and hearing this comment? You have just decided to pour out your most valuable possession (probably your only valuable possession) to express your gratefulness to the man who forgave your sins and raised your brother from the dead, and one of the religious people sneers at you for "wasting" your treasure? How heartbreaking.
But that's what legalism does. Those trapped in it have two choices: pride or despair. They despair when they can't keep their own rules and become proud when they can. They look down their noses at others who don't share their rules, considering them less "holy" than themselves.
If you couldn't tell, I've been burned by legalism this week. I've ended up feeling like a terrible parent because my standards aren't the same as someone else's. And I've spent the last few days brooding on this slight, trying to decide how to respond, what to think, how to feel about it. I don't have any answers yet. I know I need to be forgiving and loving, as I can't just cut this person out of my life, but this is not the first time that their legalism has hurt me. Granted, it only hurts because of my own tendency to live as a legalist, my own subtle leaning towards despair at my inability to live perfectly. So what do I do about it?
As best as I can tell, Jesus reserves his most scathing comments for the legalists, telling them, essentially, to shut up and stop imposing their rules on other people. But that can't be my response to this situation, can it? I'm not like Jesus in this story; I'm like Mary-- being sneered at for doing my best-- and Mary doesn't defend herself. The fight is between Jesus and Judas, not Judas and Mary, even though Mary probably felt like a casualty. In the end, the fight always belongs to Jesus, and it is not my responsibility to prove the legalists wrong. If I see an opportunity to offer biblical correction, I will take it, as this person professes to be a Christian, which makes it my responsibility to help him/her. But I must not be motivated by hurt, anger, or bitterness, and, until I can eradicate those feelings from my dealings with this person, maybe it would be better to keep my mouth shut.
On a related (but slightly random) tangent, I wonder how Jesus' loyal disciples felt about Judas once they realized that he had betrayed Jesus. Temptation to bitterness, anyone?