Love and the Ten Commandments

What is a Pharisee? Who are these guys who are threatening Jesus in this story? You may have learned about the Pharisees in Sunday School. Or maybe you watched Jesus Christ Superstar, where they were the bearded guys in the huge funny hats. When we hear the word “Pharisee” in church, we mostly think “bad guy.” They’re usually actively plotting against Jesus and his mission, and they’re behind several attempts to discredit him.

But the actual Pharisees were the protectors and interpreters of sacred law, the glue that holds Jewish identity together. Moses brought the ten commandments down from Mt. Sinai, directly from God’s own dictation, and Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain the day-to-day rules for living by these holy laws. Those rules are designed to keep the people of Israel conscious, in all their actions, of their special relationship with God.

So the Pharisees were doing important work, the task of proactive cultural preservation. In a nation occupied by the Roman Empire, they were on 24-hour patrol around Jewish identity, which was identified with God’s unbreakable law.

And now here’s this Jesus, publicly and cheerfully flouting that law, letting his disciples eat with unwashed hands and pick grain on the holy day of rest, and even performing a healing on the Sabbath! And the Pharisees recognize the danger he poses for all of the society they are trying to preserve.

But in their concern for policing every detail of daily life, the Pharisees have forgotten the spirit of the law they are protecting. Further on in Mark’s gospel, a group of temple officials will ask Jesus what looks like a “gotcha!” question. “Teacher, what is the most important of all the laws, in your opinion?” And he will answer, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30)

And there’s the core of the 10 commandments. Each of them is a different way of saying “Love God, Love your neighbor, Love yourself.” This is what the Pharisees have lost track of. That’s how they can look at a group of tired, hungry people helping themselves to grain—or one disabled man asking to be healed—and see only an infraction of Sabbath law.

God is love, and even God’s justice is rooted in love.

But in their zeal to enforce the Sabbath, the Pharisees have violated at least the first of the Ten Commandments, and possibly the second as well. The first commandment says “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me” And what the Pharisees have done is to elevate the rules of the Sabbath above God’s mandate to love. And they have made the Sabbath itself into an idol, and they are sacrificing hungry people and a disabled man to its demands.

Jesus challenges these rigid guardians of morality by reminding them that the hero of their nation, King David, actually ate consecrated bread right off the altar, and even shared it with his friends. But they are unmoved. They watch to see if he’ll commit further outrages against the sacred Sabbath.

And of course he does. You can practically hear the defiance in his voice as he tells the disabled man to hold out his bad arm—probably looking at the Pharisees the entire time. “You wanna see some work on the Sabbath? Watch this.”


Well. The Pharisees are long gone, but their brothers and sisters continue their work of patrolling the boundaries in the name of the great God of Purity. Listen to how MAGA followers talk about the perils of immigration. You will hear them talking about pollution. Disease. Tainting of the pure blood of the nation. The presence of darker-skinned people who speak scary unknown languages is an existential threat to the purity of an imaginary white, English-speaking America.

Even worse than the fear of racial pollution is the terror of compromising the rigid classifications of male and female. What is a Real Man? Who is a Real Woman? What behaviors and mannerisms will keep you safely within the fence of your assigned gender? What will get you kicked out—sometimes literally?

The definitions and rules are constantly changing. You can never really be completely confident that you’re doing Manhood correctly, so you have to be vigilant. In the name of Gender Purity, you must stamp out any sign of Non-manliness in yourself, your friends, and especially your children. Punish your kids for any hint of deviant behavior. And make sure your women—your women—are obeying God’s rules for tasteful, modest dress and behavior.

So people turn their ideals of Real Manliness and Womanliness into idols, and then sacrifice their own inappropriate thoughts and behaviors to those gods. Or they sacrifice the scary young man in makeup and a dress who’s reading stories at the library. Or they sacrifice their own children. Up to 40 percent of homeless teenagers have been thrown out of their families and homes because they can’t conform to the rules for their assigned gender.

All of this happens because seven verses in the Bible condemn various ways in which men exploit other men or boys. The Bible has a long history of being raised above God’s own self as an object of worship.

In the service of the idols people have created and elevated above the prime commandment, they are willing, eager, to break the other commandments, too. The eighth commandment forbids us to bear false witness against our neighbors. But the worshippers of racial and gender purity are quite willing to lie about the scary hordes of non-English speaking people at our borders, or about trans people stalking our little daughters in restrooms. The fifth commandment forbids killing, but trans people—especially trans women of color—are particularly vulnerable to homicide and other kinds of violence. The sixth commandment prohibits adultery, but when the candidate who preaches racial purity boasts about his extramarital activities and is convicted of assaulting one of the many women who have accused him, his followers look the other way.


Now, it’s way too easy to condemn the idolators all around us. But let us, as progressive people—Christians, Jews, Secular Humanists, Doubters—be vigilant about the idols we may be creating. When I examine my own faith journey, I find that more than occasionally I have acted like a Pharisee. I have created idols and false gods in my own image—the gods of self-satisfaction in being the right kind of Christian, being part of a progressive, social-justice church, not like one of them. I sometimes feel like the Pharisee who prayed loudly in public: God, I thank you that I am not like those other people!

Where is the love?

Whenever we create gods whose opinions are amazingly identical to our own, who hate the same people we do, we lose track of the commandment at the root of all the others. Jewish justice and Christian love come from the same great mandate: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor. And love yourself.


Justice and love join together to say to the Pharisees: Enjoy the Sabbath! Set aside this special day to experience gratitude for your life and for all life, to admire God’s creation, to rest and refresh yourself. Enjoy the amazing, diverse, colorful garden that is our shared humanity. Taste the foods that your new neighbors from Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Mexico, Guatemala, have brought to America. June is Pride Month: rejoice in the dazzling variety of Pride flags that affirm all humans.

Slow down, stop working for a day, and let yourself experience God’s astonishing love for you. And remember that God’s love is so huge, so all encompassing, that—even though it commands you to take a break—it makes room for you to rescue your donkey from the well on the Sabbath, or feed your cattle on the Sabbath, or to feed yourself or heal someone broken in body and spirit, on the Sabbath. What better celebrations can there be of a God of infinite love?


Related Information

Prospect Blog