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Illustration: Legalism, Self-Righteousness

In the Aug. 23, 2006, edition of The Christian Century, John Ortberg talks about how each of has a bit of the Pharisee in him or her: "James Dunn notes that in the first century a disproportionate amount of rabbinic attention was devoted to three areas of the law: dietary rules, Sabbath-keeping and circumcision. This was in spite of the fact that rabbis would not have claimed these as the central aspects of God's will for humanity. They knew that the essence of the law was the shema—the loving of God with heart and soul and strength. So why the relentless focus on dietary laws, circumcision and Sabbath-keeping?

"The answer," Dunn says, "involves 'identity markers,' or boundaries. All groups of human beings have a tendency to be exclusive; they want to know who is inside and who is out. So they adopt identity markers—visible practices of dress, vocabulary or behavior that serve to distinguish who is inside the group from who is outside.

"For instance, if you were driving along in the '60s and saw a Volkswagen van plastered with 'Make Love Not War' bumper stickers, with a long-haired, tie-dyed, granny-glasses driver, you'd know you were observing a hippie. If it were the '80s and you saw a BMW driver wearing Gucci shoes and a Rolex watch, you'd know you were observing a yuppie. Every fraternity or sorority has its own uniform.

"With this in mind, the attention given to the purity codes in the first century becomes clearer...Jesus is not accusing the Pharisees of an early form of Pelagianism, of trying to earn their justification by strenuous moral effort. He does not regard these laws as bizarre or outlandish. Perhaps most important, He does not reject His own religious culture. He agrees with the Pharisees that God's work in human history is happening precisely through the life and destiny of this people of Israel.

"But now, he says, the kingdom is breaking into human history in a new and unexpected way...The identity markers that will proclaim the authenticity of the people of God will be a circumcised heart and a diet of justice and love. Then people will not simply try to do right things; they will be the kind of persons who want to do right things; they will be clean 'inside.' Jesus saw this not as the repudiation of Israel's ancient dream, but as its ultimate fulfillment...

"The struggle of Mark 7 is a struggle inside every human being who seeks to take faith seriously. There is a self-righteousness in me that does not want to die. There is something inside me that is not bothered when others are excluded, that wants others to be excluded—that feels more special when I'm on the inside and somebody else is not...

"Henri Nouwen wrote that it is very hard to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother. Any time people are not experiencing authentic transformation—as in Mark 7:21-23—they will inevitably be drawn toward some kind of faith characterized by boundary markers. We will look for substitute ways of distinguishing ourselves from those on the outside. The boundary markers change from century to century, but they all reinforce a false sense of superiority, fed by the intent to exclude others."