Not many things made Jesus angry. He was the picture of patience and forgiveness even in the face of many serious human faults. But one thing often caused Jesus to fly off the handle — legalistic leaders.
While Jesus’ life and ministry may have taken place 2,000 years ago, now in my home state of Texas, legalists are placing the letter of the law ahead of the well being and dignity of children and families.
On June 29, attorneys general from 10 states including Ken Paxton of Texas threatened in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to sue the Trump administration if it does not eliminate Obama-era protections that shield "Dreamers," or undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The letter called on the administration to stop accepting new or renewing existing applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Obama created during his first term.
If these upholders of the law have their wish, Dreamers will no longer be protected from deportation.
The scribes and the Pharisees of his time drove Jesus to distraction. As he put it, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes … and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. These you should have done, without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23). And as he told his disciples, “but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice" (Matthew 23:3).
Are the roles of the scribes and Pharisees being played out again today? Paxton and the nine other attorneys general argue that it's not enough to exercise our country’s legal prerogatives regarding immigration with the adults who have sought refuge within our borders. Must we go even further and also lay the heavy burden of the law on the children they brought with them? Will we wrench Dreamers from their schools, communities and the only homes they have ever known? Will we send them away because they are not “legal”?
Around 220,000 young people in Texas will be out of school and out of productive work: a classic formula to create the desperation that makes drug dealing and other crime appear to be the only option.
The leaders of Jesus' day thought by fulfilling the minutiae of the law they could be righteous before God and, more importantly for them, appear righteous before human beings. Jesus answered that they should have practiced a higher law, that of justice and mercy and faithfulness. They should have imitated God's compassion toward those forced by life's circumstances to carry heavy loads. They should not have added to those loads with self-righteous insistence on the smaller points of the law.
When I hear this legalistic insistence upon every letter of our broken immigration law being carried out to this cruel degree, I can hear Jesus' indignant response: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.”
Most Reverend Mark J. Seitz
Bishop of El Paso