Black-ish is currently my favorite comedy television show – my only regret is how late I discovered it. I am only watching season 2 now and found it has four seasons already. It has everything you could possibly want from a comedy show. Political commentary on race that manages to stay balanced; the tension of defining black identity in the modern world; individuality; the struggle of being a woman raising four children with a demanding career; parenting, marriage – all the while staying incredibly funny and tackling these various issues without it coming across as being forced and inauthentic.
One of the episodes has Dre laying the 10,000 commandments of the house in order to increase discipline in the house after Zoe the eldest daughter has been on a mini- rebellion. They give the children a large number of house rules such as – thou shall not chew sticky gum in the house. And so Junior (Dre’s eldest son) who was the only one who showed enthusiasm and excitement for the rules when they were being laid out – shows his younger siblings how the trick is to find loopholes to get around the rules. He opens his window and sticks his head out the window and chews gum “outside the house” thereby obeying the rule. Another house rule was no eating allowed after a certain time and so he takes hamburger and chips with yoghurt and grinds into a smoothie to drink rather than eat it thereby obeying the rule because it said “no eating”.
As I was watching that I thought Junior’s actions were a perfect illustration of the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees – legalism.
The Pharisees were concerned with the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. Just as Junior was concerned with the letter of the rules and not the spirit, teleos, purpose of the rules.
The rule that – No eating after 10pm is allowed – looked at within the framework of spirit: is about the purpose, end and good the law is aiming at. Junior should have realized that not eating after 10pm is good. Perhaps the rule’s purpose was to prevent them from developing a bad habit of eating excessively and unnecessarily; eating junk food when they are not hungry. Especially because they would have had dinner already. Junior was not concerned with the good that the law was aiming at and the transformation of his character to develop good habits. Rather he wanted to maintain his habits and desires and therefore found ways to circumvent the house rules through loop holes.
Similarly the Pharisees appeared to be the custodians of the law; they were the scholars, trained and learned in the teaching and interpretation of the law. They had the appearance of being the ones who adhered to it more than anyone else and yet had failed to recognize the purpose and aim of the law.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for a number of reasons. Firstly, their motives for keeping the law were not noble and pure – emanating from a desire to love God and His creation. Rather the law was a means for them to attain honour, recognition and glory from people.
The philosopher Nietzsche would make a similar critique against egalitarian morality. His critique was that egalitarianism was not motivated by noble and selfless intentions nor of the equality of human beings – but by resentment and a desire to exert one’s will to power over those that were more creative, intelligent, strong and bold.
Nietzsche would say the Pharisees were also exerting their will to power- they saw how the law was revered in their society and how they could climb the social hierarchy using the law. Jesus warned his disciples not to be like the hypocrites who stand in synagogues saying long prayers simply to be seen, revered and honored by men rather than God.
Secondly, they ignored the true intention and purpose of the law. They were angry with Jesus because it appeared to them he had broken the sabbath law -“Thou shall not work on the sabbath day”. By healing a person, or in general helping a person on the sabbath, according to the Pharisees Jesus had broken the law. For the Pharisees the law had nothing to do with loving people which is completely contrary to the the fact that the law is summed up as “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself”. The pharisees failed to see how intricately woven with love the law was and how separating the two led to all kinds of self-serving legalism.
Jesus was brilliant and time after time unmasked the true motives and intentions behind their appearances. One particular instance exemplifies this point. A man in need of healing comes to Jesus. Jesus turns to the Pharisees and asks “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees were quiet – for what in my opinion was a relatively straight forward question. They went away and devised ways to kill Jesus. Jesus had unmasked them. Recall that the Pharisees had separated what is lawful from what is good. They also despised Jesus because he had exposed their true motives and were caught in a dilemma. If they said “to do good is lawful” then people would see that they agree with Jesus and therefore they have no valid reason to oppose him. On the other hand they could not say “to do evil is lawful” because they wanted people to see them as lawful, and righteous; and it would have been absurd to say to do evil is lawful.
Junior’s actions were a comical yet vivid and insightful reminder of how we all tend to be Pharisees. How easy and natural it is for us to rationalize and justify doing what we know we should not be doing. As the prophet Jeremiah said: “The heart is deceitful above all things”.