Religious Attitudes When the Master Preached
1. What did the Essenes believe and practice?
APART from the zealous activity of John the Baptist, there were a number of Jewish groups that were molding religious attitudes in Palestine when Jesus began his ministry. One of these groups was the Essenes, who are not mentioned in the inspired writings of Jesus’ apostles and disciples. They believed that godliness required them to punish the body, to fast and to live austerely, so they looked down on anything that was a pleasure to the flesh. They isolated themselves in little communities. The Essenes were not a major religious group confronting Jesus in his preaching, although they have recently been brought into prominence because of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls of books of the Bible.
2. What were the Zealots interested in, and on what occasion does their influence seem apparent?
2 Then there was the group of Zealots or Nationalists. They wanted a Jew to arise to lead them in a revolt against Rome and break the yoke of Rome from off their necks. Galilee was a hotbed of seditions, and that was where Jesus had grown up. One of Jesus’ disciples was called “the zealous one” or “the Zealot,” and may have been a member of the Zealot party. However, he did not stir up the nationalistic or home-rule spirit immediately after Jesus had miraculously fed five thousand men. “Hence when the men saw the signs he performed they began to say: This is for a certainty the prophet that was to come into the world.’ Therefore Jesus, realizing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” These nationalistic ones wanted to set him up as king, consequently in opposition to the rule by Rome. They wanted to draft Jesus, with his miraculous powers, for their own selfish purposes. But Jesus steadfastly refused to be sidetracked from the work that his heavenly Father had sent him to do. As he testified before Pilate: “For this purpose I have been born and for this purpose I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”—John 6:14, 15; 18:37; Luke 6:15, margin; Acts 1:13.
3. Who were the Sadducees, and how did they view Rome, the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition?
3 A third group were the Sadducees, who included scribes and members of the Sanhedrin and even the two chief priests among their number. (John 11:47; Acts 5:17; 22:30; 23:6) They were not concerned about the coming of a Messiah but were interested in maintaining the status quo. They had a working agreement with Rome. They were to handle the affairs of the temple, the priestly services, the collection of the tithes, the contributions made at the temple, the sale of sacrificial animals in the Court of the Gentiles, and the money-changing business operated there. The Sadducees did not accept either all the inspired Hebrew Scriptures or the traditions of the Pharisees; in fact, they believed only in the Law of Moses.
4. How did Jesus answer the Sadducees on resurrection, and why?
4 Hence it was the Sadducees that came to Jesus to object about the resurrection, because they thought the Law of Moses gave no basis for such a teaching. Jesus met them on their own ground, quoting from the writings of Moses: “Concerning the dead, that they are raised up, did you not read in the book of Moses, in the account about the thornbush, how God said to him: ‘I am the God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob’? He is a God, not of the dead, but of the living. You are much mistaken.” (Mark 12:18-27) This meant that those men who were dead would live again by resurrection. Just as some who were living alienated from God were spoken of as dead from God’s standpoint, so these dead approved ones were considered to be living from his standpoint.—Eph. 2:1; 1 Tim. 5:6; Luke 20:38.
5. What knowledge about the Sadducees would identify them as the ones who would cry out, “We have no king but Caesar”?
5 Because of the working agreement that they had with Rome, the Sadducees did not want anyone stirring up trouble that might bring in Roman legions to impose restrictions. They wanted to get rid of Jesus. Pilate himself knew that, and said to Jesus: “Your own nation and the chief priests [Sadducees] delivered you up to me.” Very logically they would be the ones to make his case an issue of loyalty to Caesar: “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Every man making himself a king speaks against Caesar.” And when Pilate asked whether he should impale their king, it was the chief priests, or Sadducees, that shouted: “We have no king but Caesar.”—John 18:35; 19:12-16.
SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
6. Who were the scribes?
6 Some of the scribes were Sadducees, but most of them were Pharisees, and that is no doubt why Jesus spoke of scribes and Pharisees together so frequently in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. The priestly scribes read, copied, taught and interpreted the law. They showed how it was to be applied in daily living.—Matt. 23:2, 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29.
7. What did the Pharisees believe?
7 The Pharisees, who were the religious traditionalists, thought salvation was only through keeping the traditions or so-called oral law. They looked forward to the coming of the Messiah in their own way. They accepted all the Hebrew Scriptures, but to these they added oral traditions. They wanted to stay separate from the Romans because they thought it was a contamination to have anything to do with them. It was also contaminating in their mind to have anything to do with the common people who did not keep the oral traditions.
8. Why were the Pharisees the ones that complained about Jesus’ disciples’ not washing their hands before they ate?
8 Since the Pharisees were tradition-lovers, we are not surprised that they were the ones who complained to Jesus about his disciples: “They do not wash their hands when about to eat a meal.” The complaint was not lodged on sanitary grounds, but in defense of the traditions, which Jesus said “made the word of God invalid.” (Matt. 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-8) The tradition of hand-washing developed with time. First it was a ritual washing before meals. Then the washing took place before and after meals, and later the more rigorous worshipers washed between the courses of the meal. For some food hands had to be immersed completely, and for other types the hands were to have special water poured over them, running down over the wrists. This water was now considered to be dirty, so if any ran back onto the hands, they had to be washed again to take off the dirty water. The Talmud sets out the penalty for failure: “He who lightly esteems hand-washing will perish from the earth.” They were busy washing their hands, but they never got around to cleansing their heart!
9. Why did the Pharisees complain about Jesus’ disciples’ plucking grain on the sabbath, and what were some of their sabbath regulations?
9 Who would complain about plucking grain and eating it on the sabbath? Matthew 12:2 answers: “At seeing this the Pharisees said to him: ‘Look! your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’” It was their sabbath traditions that moved them to object. The sabbath was a touchy subject, and in the Talmud there are two large volumes on sabbath regulations. For example, you could not bite your fingernails on the sabbath. A woman could not look into a mirror, as she might see a gray hair and pull it out, and that would be work. You could not wear false teeth, because they might fall out, and to pick them up would be bearing a burden on the sabbath. A plaster might be worn on a wound if it only prevented it from getting worse; if it improved the wound, that would be unlawful work. A fractured bone could not be treated on the sabbath, unless the person’s very life was at stake. You could not eat the egg a hen laid on the sabbath. The exception was if the hen was not being kept as a layer, but was being fattened up to eat, then her egg could be eaten, for it was to be viewed merely as a piece of the hen that had fallen off!
THE “PEOPLE OF THE EARTH”
10. Who were the am ha-arets, and how were they viewed by religious Jews?
10 The Hebrew expression am ha-arets means “people of the earth [or, land].” (Jer. 1:18, marginal footnote) These people were treated like dirt under the feet of the Pharisees, and, of course, the Sadducees had nothing to do with them, because they looked down on everyone. The am ha-arets were poor laborers who did not know the Law or the traditions or did not keep them. They did not recite the formal prayers, have ritual fringes on their garments or wear phylacteries at devotions, nor did they train their sons in the traditions as did the scrupulous Jews. They were hated and outlawed from the community by the rabbis. One rabbi denied them all hope of a resurrection, and Rabbi Hillel said: “No am ha-arets is truly religious.” A good Jew would not let his daughter marry one. Their view was: “Let not a man associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Torah.” When the religionists objected to Jesus’ associating with sinners, they doubtless included this class.
11. How did Jesus feel about the am ha-arets?
11 Jesus showed consideration for the am ha-arets class of sinners. “I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners,” Jesus said when the self-righteous Pharisees objected to his associating with these lowly ones. Jesus was drawn to them: “On seeing the crowds he felt tender affection for them, because they were skinned and knocked about like sheep without a shepherd.” These long-ignored people responded to the preaching of Jesus; they were not indifferent to Jehovah’s law. It was the impossible traditions of the elders that these working people could not keep.—Matt. 9:13, 36.
12. How does this knowledge make clearer the situation recorded at Luke 15:1-10?
12 With this knowledge of the situation we can better understand the account at Luke 15:1-10. “The sinners kept drawing near to him to hear him. Consequently, both the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering, saying: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” In response to this Jesus told of a man with a hundred sheep; when one sheep strays he leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that is lost and rejoices greatly over its recovery. Then Jesus said pointedly: “I tell you that thus there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance.” He took the Pharisees’ own viewpoint, that they were righteous and were safe in the fold of God. So he would seek the lost ones, the sinners, and he said that there would be more rejoicing over the recovery of one sinner than over ninety-nine self-righteous men that thought they did not need saving. To make the same point doubly strong he added the illustration of the woman with ten coins, who lost one and diligently searched till she found it and rejoiced greatly over this one that made her set of coins complete. It was the lost coin, the lost sheep, including the am ha-arets class that are lost and know it and seek salvation that interested Jesus and brought joy to Jehovah when recovered. God was not interested in the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, who did not repent over the consciousness of sins.
13. What absurd views did the Pharisees have about their traditions and God’s Word?
13 Why should Jehovah and Jesus find joy in the traditionalists? The traditions of the scribes and Pharisees made void God’s word, yet they thought so highly of these traditions that they became ridiculous. They said that the written law was like water, but the traditions were like wine. They said that God spent all day studying the written word and all night studying the oral traditions. Can you imagine it?
DENUNCIATION OF HYPOCRITES
14. How did the scribes and Pharisees bind heavy loads on men’s shoulders, and in what way did they hinder people from entering the Kingdom?
14 Is it any wonder that Jesus spoke the scathing words recorded in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew? “They bind up heavy loads and put them upon the shoulders of mankind, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.” These loads were the oral traditions that were so burdensome to keep, and they would not so much as lift one little regulation to make it easier. They had set themselves up as teachers of the people, but instead of directing the people’s attention to the kingdom of God, they were discouraging them by insistence on burdensome traditions. Then when Jesus did what they were failing to do, they became enraged and sought to turn the people against him. Rightly Jesus said: “You shut up the kingdom of the heavens before mankind; for you yourselves do not go in, neither do you permit those on their way in to go in.”—Matt. 23:4, 13.
15. What shows that the Pharisees and scribes were interested only in the outward appearance of things?
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, judgment and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was binding to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!” They were so occupied with small things that they never got around to the weightier matters of true worship. Although they kept up outward appearances, they failed in performance. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of plunder and immoderateness. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside of it also may become clean.” They were interested in surface appearances, but God looked on the heart. While there was much outward piety, justice and mercy and faithfulness were woefully lacking.—Matt. 23:23-26.
16. What illustrations contrast those appearing good outwardly and those actually good inwardly?
16 A precious stone may look dull, but it is good inside. When you rub it and grind it, it begins to shine. Even if the rough unpolished outside looks common, its value extends beneath the surface. On the other hand, though a whitewashing job may help the appearance of an old frame house, it takes very little rubbing before the old boards beneath begin to show. So it is with people. Jehovah is not interested in those who look pious outwardly. When rubbed the wrong way, when they do not get their own way, or when they have to change, then you see what is inside of them. You see how irritable they can be, and the real person inside comes out. When Jehovah gathers the precious things out of all nations he is interested in persons who are like precious stones. The more Christians who have the right heart are rubbed around, persecuted, reproached and oppressed, the more their integrity shines, the more brilliantly they reflect the glory of Jehovah and the more dazzling becomes their disproof of Satan’s lie that men will not hold their faith under test.—Hag. 2:7, AS.
17. What shows the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees regarding Jehovah’s prophets?
17 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the memorial tombs of the righteous ones, and you say: ‘If we had been in the days of our forefathers, we would not have been sharers with them in the blood of the prophets.’” But it was these very hypocrites who killed the greatest prophet of all, Jesus Christ! They were glad to build tombs for the prophets and decorate them to draw attention to their own deeds of charity, but woe to the living prophet who would dare to expose their hypocrisy!—Matt. 23:29, 30.
RELIGIOUS ATTITUDES TODAY
18. What shows these same religious types exist today?
18 The same types of people exist now as did in the first century. Some isolate themselves in religious buildings, fast and mistreat the body, thinking such asceticism to be godliness, as did the Essenes. Some are superpatriots, who look to human rulers and nations as God’s instruments and want to take matters in their own hands and bring in peace in their own way, as did the Zealots. The Sadducees took only part of the Hebrew Scriptures, setting aside the rest, and religious modernists today do the same. Like the Sadducees, they want to be in favor with the governments of men. But if you are going to walk with God you cannot be a part of the old world, as the modernists are. Also, like the Pharisees, there are today the traditionalists. Some hold to religious traditions brought in from ancient paganism, and others have built up their own traditions in addition to what has been borrowed from paganism. Religious fundamentalists of today fall into that category. Their traditions about trinity, immortality of the soul, torment for sinners, use of idols, and many others, make void the simple truths of the Bible, just as did the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees.
19. (a) What class compares with the am ha-arets, and how do religious leaders react? (b) What do these formerly neglected ones experience when they associate with the New World society?
19 There are also present today those like the am ha-arets or “people of the earth [or, land].” They are sincere people who have not been properly taught by the religious systems of Christendom, yet they hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is mainly to these that Jehovah’s witnesses go in love, and they find many hearing ears. Just as the Pharisees scoffed at those who listened to Jesus and said: “You have not been misled also, have you? Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he? But this crowd that does not know the law are accursed people,” so religious leaders today scoff about listening to Jehovah’s witnesses. They say it is only the lowly, uneducated ones that listen. They are wrong, just as the Pharisees were wrong, for some of the rulers and Pharisees did listen to Jesus and follow him. (John 3:1, 2; Acts 4:36, 37; 6:7) The majority who listen are of this neglected class, but when they begin to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and associate with the New World society they are no longer neglected. They are lovingly helped to get an accurate knowledge of God’s Word; if necessary, they are even taught how to read so they can study the Bible. They note that Jehovah’s witnesses, like Jesus, preach differently. They rely on the authority of the Bible, unlike the modern Pharisees and Sadducees with their tradition and modernism.—John 7:47-49.
20. (a) What course should we wisely follow today, but what should we shun? (b) How can we share in a work of spiritual healing?
20 If we are true followers of Jesus, we must walk in his footsteps, shunning hypocrisy and God-dishonoring tradition and faithfully directing the attention of men conscious of their spiritual need to God’s kingdom. Never may we become like the false religionists of Jesus’ day who were interested in doing things only their own way and who did not carry on worship that was acceptable to Jehovah God. Of course, we cannot duplicate Jesus’ miracles of healing and raising the dead, but we can share in a work of spiritual healing. We can put Bible truth in the mind and impress it on the heart of the receptive one, and the transformed mind will direct that one’s feet in God’s service, feet once lame as far as walking with God is concerned. Eyes once blind to his truth will perceive, ears once deaf to his message will hear, bodies once leprous with spiritual sickness will become clean; and those dead in trespasses and sins can be raised to spiritual life and activity, gaining a faith no longer dead but proved alive by activity and works in Jehovah’s service.
21. How should we strive to follow closely the model set by Jesus?
21 Jesus left “a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Pet. 2:21) Just as a builder carefully examines his blueprints for all details, so we must study Jesus’ ministry in order to copy it closely. We should strive to understand the people to whom we witness, see their need, make the message forceful and clear with appropriate illustrations, and show deep love for the sheep as Jesus did. We should be fearless in speaking the truth to all persons, and we should patiently assist the lowly ones. If we pay constant attention to both ourselves and our teaching, it will result in salvation for ourselves and those who listen to us.—1 Tim. 4:16.