A. J. Jacobs spent a year living what he considered to be “biblically.” He grew his hair and beard long and walked around New York City dressed like Moses, looking for people who were breaking any of the rules of the Old Testament.
On day 62 he went to Central Park to follow the command to stone adulterers. In Central Park, Mr. Jacobs met a man who looked to be in his mid-70s, sitting on a park bench. He walked up to the man and told him, “I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The Ten Commandments, stoning adulterers …”
This is Mr. Jacob’s own account of how things went from there.
“You’re stoning adulterers?” the man asks.
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer,” the man replies.
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah, Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
He is serious. This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him. I fish my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.” I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then flinging it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this grizzled old man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye. I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he says.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery.”1
Mr Jacobs was trying to demonstrate that the biblical requirements are arbitrary and silly. And his “proof” is invalid because he wasn’t interpreting things literally. He was actually going out of his way to “over interpret” what he found in the Old Testament.
Now while Mr. Jacobs was trying to belittle and ridicule the beliefs of those who are trying to live what they believe, the Scribes and Pharisees who lived during Jesus’ time also “over interpreted” what they found in their Bible.
They did it for a different reason.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were following the lead of generations of leaders before them who, in an attempt to take the guesswork out of following God’s Law, had interpreted and interpreted, until they had buried what God had intended under mountains of extra rules and guidelines.
It seems like they got all wrapped up in what following the Law looked like.
Then Jesus came along and lived the Law the way He meant it when He wrote it. That really bothered the Scribes and the Pharisees, because Jesus demonstrated that it wasn’t enough to follow a check list. There was more to it than that. They understood, but they didn’t want to admit they were doing it wrong. Jesus knew it, too, and they knew He knew it. They doubled down and dug in – they decided Jesus was the problem, not the way they kept the rules.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:23-28
Jesus wants everyone to know that the Law isn’t just about what things look like on the outside – it’s not about checklists.
In His life and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrated that the Law is more than just words. He expanded and explained the inward part of the Law. The Law doesn’t work from the outside in, but from the inside out. Adultery, murder, dishonoring your parents – all of it is more than actions. They involve thoughts and attitudes that may or may not lead to actions.
Do you remember when you were a kid and a brother or sister would put their finger as close to you as they could get it without actually touching you? Then they would keep repeating, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” Until you wanted to break something … preferably their finger?
The Pharisees were kind of like that – they walked around all the time like they were saying to God, “I’m not sinning! I’m not sinning!”
In contrast, Jesus spent all day telling everyone he met how much He loved them. He spent the rest of the time telling God how much He loved Him. Think of Mary Magdalene, the disciples, or any of the other folks who walked with Jesus. They didn’t follow Jesus because they had to, but because they couldn’t stay away.
The Pharisees had come to the place where they loved religion for religion’s sake. Even today, it’s easy to fall into that habit. It’s comfortable and satisfying to be able to check the boxes and know we’ve followed all the rules. To Mr. Jacobs, living biblically meant fulfilling lists of rules and punishing anyone who didn’t also follow those rules. What Mr. Jacobs didn’t realize is that we’re not asked to live biblically. We’re told to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Mr. Jacobs forgot the love part. Jesus taught that just following a set of rules means nothing without love. We can’t forget to love God and each other. If we do that, all the rest will follow as we allow the Holy Spirit guides us.
- A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (Simon & Schuster, 2007), pp. 92-93 ↩