Are You a Legalist or a Laborer?

by Rob Tims

The more I read through the gospel of Matthew, the more I think he intended to present a sharp contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the religious legalist.

  • A religious person would have quickly succumbed to any one of the temptations Jesus faced (Matthew 4:1-11).
  • A religious person would have taken great offense at much of the Sermon on the Mount (“You have heard it said …”).
  • And while some religious people were drawn to Jesus because of His miracles (Matthew 8:19-20), they reviled Him as he began to forgive sin (Matthew 9:3).
  • Given the presumption Jesus was a blasphemer, it was nothing to question His integrity and holiness based on the character and behavior of His disciples (Matthew 9:9-17).
  • And when Jesus drove a demon out of a man, it was the religious people who accused Jesus of doing so as a ruler of demons (Matthew 9:32-34).

I believe it’s in this context that Matthew records the last few verses of chapter 9.

35 Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out,like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few.38 Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

What is the opposite of a religious person?

A laborer.

  • Religious people find their identity in their righteousness. Laborers find their identity in Jesus’ righteousness.
  • Religious people look upon others with contempt. Laborers look upon others with compassion.
  • Religious people are pessimistic about the righteousness of others. Laborers are optimistic about the grace of God for others.
  • Religious people talk about others. Laborers pray for others.

So Matthew is begging the question.

Are you religious, or are you a laborer?

Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.

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