They thought that stricter religion was the answer. Their great question was to ask what their forefathers had done that had so angered God, and never do it again. The logic seemed unassailable. God had sent them into exile because they had broken the covenant, therefore if they kept the covenant perfectly, their security in the Promised Land was assured.
So they went back to the Law, hoping to find a way to keep Torah more perfectly. If the Law was holy, then being ever more zealous in its application must be even holier, yes? So they took the words that God had once given, the words that defined holy obedience, and analysed them endlessly under the microscope of their zeal to find safety and security in this world. Before you can work the system, you have to determine exactly what the system is. Did the Law say that you must not work on the Sabbath? Then of course you must refrain from work at that time; but what is work? Is it work when a tailor holds a needle? Is it work when a woman carries a hairclip in her hair? If a man walks on the grass on the Sabbath day, is he guilty of the work of threshing? Can a man defend himself on the Sabbath, or cure the sick, or prepare food for the hungry? No, for these things would be violations of the commandment.
How else could they keep the Law more zealously? They became expert students of scripture, fasted twice a week, gave of their money to charity and were evangelistic in spreading their faith. In short, they had invented their own penitential system to make up for whatever their forebears had lacked. They were going to show God how good they really were, by doing far more than He had ever asked. In both sacrifice and obedience they would be meticulous, and God Himself would have to applaud their righteousness (or so they had persuaded themselves). Within the rigours of the Law they walked in the sackcloth and ashes of these strict requirements. They called themselves the ‘separated ones’, or, in Hebrew, the Pharisees. They disdained to have any dealings with those who did not live up to their exalted standards. They knew themselves to be very holy.
Then, in the fullness of time, there came one who was truly holy, for He was without sin. He preached, and men listened; He touched, and men were healed, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. He frightened them, for at one and the same time, He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and broke many of their rules, without any apology. Worse, He seemed to imply that their rules were wrong, and a stumbling block to truly knowing God. Didn’t He know what God wanted, what they had so carefully worked out? He refused their sackcloth and ashes and spoke of feasts and wedding garments instead. He was even known to willingly spend time with prostitutes and tax collectors, so how could he be a good man, they asked themselves, intoning old proverbs about the dangers of bad company.
They never saw, they never understood. Love Himself walked among them, and they were blind to His glory. Love called them to His great dance, and they turned away, claiming it was illegal to dance on the Sabbath. The brighter His radiance shone, the more tightly they wrapped their sackcloth about themselves, and flung ashes in their own eyes, lest they should be forced to see instead, and own their self- manufactured virtues for the useless rags they were.