The readings today take aim at the impossibly large number of laws the Jewish scribes had placed on peoples’ backs over the centuries.
Let’s just review the way those laws came about. In 450 b.c. Jerusalem had fallen into bad ways: its children were being married to idol worshippers; the walls and roads were in bad repair; crime was rampant.
Jerusalem was at that time part of the Persian Empire where king Artaxerxes sent d a Jewish priest, Ezra, and a Jewish official, Nehemiah to Jerusalem to find a way for getting the city running properly. The suggestion those two came back with was that Jerusalem should take the Law of Moses as its civil law. The justices in Persia okayed that plan, but they made one condition: Jerusalem’s religious leaders would need to enact amendments to the ancient law of Moses to bring it up to date. They came up with three sensible provisions, but they did not stop at that. Through the centuries they piled restriction upon restriction until a person couldn’t take a short walk without the help of a lawyer to keep him from committing an infraction of the countless laws.
In the first reading Paul said, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” He meant it was not necessary for a Jewish person to know and observe the millions of restrictions piled up over the centuries. He didn’t mean that good behavior was not needed. When Luther said a man with faith needed no good works to back it up he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The Gospel concludes with the scribes and Pharisees plotting to use their cumbersome body of laws to trap Jesus in a violation.