“Why can’t he just take the next step?” A prominent member of the Jewish P’rushim, the Pharisees, was talking to a friend about a potential convert. “He is so close to believing the truth. He knows the scriptures; maybe even better than I do. We agree on almost everything. But he just won’t take that next step. He just won’t accept the Oral Law.”
In our world that last phrase might be heard variously. “He just won’t accept the authority of the Pope.” Or maybe, “that baptism is just the outward sign of an inward change,” or “baptism of newborns,” or “that Jesus could have come and preached to the Native Americans,” or (I’ve even heard) “that the King James Version of the Bible is the original, accurate, and infallible text.” He/she just can’t accept those things I believe in that can’t be found written by God, but are so much a part of the way I worship God.
Our hypothetical Pharisee knew his potential convert was a righteous Jew. In fact, except on a few major (well, maybe even minor) points, he was a Pharisee. No one kept the written law as faithfully. He just wouldn’t follow the traditions of the fathers as law.
If he could take that one step, how many others would come into the fold? “If he could take that next step, maybe those traitors, those Greek philosophy spouting Sadducees would finally have to listen to the 'holy ones' for once.”
What really scared our friend, the Pharisee, though, was not that he couldn’t quite convert the man. It was that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was going around showing people how to be good Jews without being Pharisees. In this Pharisee’s mind there were only two groups—Pharisees, and everyone else. They were the Pharisees—the “holy ones”—the keepers of what had been Judaism for centuries. The Essenes were a bunch of crackpots living where nothing lived, by the Dead Sea. The Zealots were just a political group and included Pharisees and others. The Sadducees were Jews who had never come back from Greek ways after the Maccabees kicked Antiochus out. The Herodians, another purely political group, didn’t care about religion as long as the descendants of that Edomite were on the throne, against all scriptural ordinances. The only pure ones were the Pharisees. Now there were these Jeshuites (for want of a better term) who claimed purity, but wouldn’t take the next step. Even some Pharisees were listening to Him.
There was one Pharisee who later saw that he could still be a Pharisee and believe this Jesus was Messiah. (Phi 3:5) It wasn’t that Jesus should have taken that next step. It was that the P’rushim needed to take the next step—a backward one. Jesus didn’t need to accept the oral law; the Pharisees needed to reject it as law. Not necessarily as practice, just as law. They needed to reject “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.” (Matt 15:5)
Did our hypothetical Pharisee ever see that truth? I don’t know. Maybe he did. Maybe his name was Saul of Tarsus. Can anyone else see that truth? Maybe. Maybe his/her name is [insert your name here].