I have recently realized that I am very weary of Pharisees.
I wish that Pharisees were simply a thing of the past, but the ever-present reality is that Pharisees are still patrolling the pews of any given church where you may find yourself on any given Sabbath. Everyone at some point or another has had a run-in with a Pharisee or two—or three. And if you’re a church leader you may run into them even more often.
My intention here is to simply get a few things off my chest and give my personal opinion on what I believe is the real problem with Pharisees and Pharisaism. And at the heart of this discussion is a color.
Yep, it’s a color. See, Pharisees like black. And they like white, too. But they absolutely hate gray. Pharisees believe gray is a wicked amalgamation. Their belief system does not allow for the mingling of the pristine purity of their own ideas (white) with the demonic and decadence of yours (black).
Well, technically, they don’t mind gray, as long as it’s their version of gray. Their configuration of ideas, even a gray one, is accepted. Just not yours. And that’s part of the problem.
Now, Pharisees aren’t all the way bad. Historically, they were actually quite good. Here’s the short version.
After the Babylonian exile, the Pharisees organized with the express purpose of ensuring that the people of God would no longer stray away from the divine precepts. In an effort to do so they became expert exegetes and interpreters of Scripture. They painstakingly studied the law of God and created a sort of oral commentary on the law which evolved over time and later was produced in a written form that is known today as the mishnah. The parts of the mishnah that were directly related to commandments or legal requirements of the law were known as halacha, which literally means walking through the law.
By New Testament times, the Pharisees had reached the height of their influence. They were well-respected by the common people because of their commitment to piety, and dogged loyalty to the nation of Israel. They were bitter rivals of the Sadducees, a similar group that was made of mostly upper class Jews, though with more liberal political views. The Pharisees, whose name in the original language signifies a literal separation from that which would defile, were the opposite of the Sadducees, who were highly motivated by any relationship or arrangement which would advance their political or economic aims. The Pharisees were deeply committed to doctrinal and personal purity. While the Pharisees did consider Sadducees to be compromising backsliders, we do see them leaguing together to entrap Jesus (see Mt. 22:15-16,22-23,34).
Power and Policies over People.
Jesus chided the Pharisees because “they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Mt. 23:6-7). It often seemed as though their primary qualm with Jesus was that he was detracting from their influence and thus diminishing the ability to maintain control of the hearts and minds of the people. They hated Roman occupation more than they hated that innocent people were being oppressed and abused. They wanted to have an independent nation more than they wanted people to be independent thinkers.
They were self-consumed and self-absorbed. They were such great fans of their own selves that they took no time to truly care for the people. Yet they “love the place of honor” and “love to be greeted.” This is in direct contrast to the ministry of Jesus who said about himself that, “the Son of man came not to be ministered to but to minister (see Mt. 20:28). But that is not the Pharisees. They wanted the obeisance of the people—not power for and to the people. They wanted people to follow the rules, to be like them, or to be rejected and cast aside.
This is also where we begin to see tribalism at work. The Pharisees were carefully constructing their political faction, and they had made an idol of the political endgame. They were nationalists. Their focus was to preserve and promote their nation, centered on their belief system, and they demanded strict adherence to it. Everyone else would be spurned, and in the case of Jesus, violently handled if need be.
They hated Jesus because he was drawing away key members of the tribe. They prided themselves that they had amassed the faith and respect of the people. They liked the idea of preserving their own exclusive group. Jesus’ popularity, authoritative teaching and miraculous works caused people’s admiration for the Pharisees to diminish.
This was, to the Pharisees, unforgivable. They were the oracles of Judaism and the gatekeepers of the tribe. Jesus would certainly need to be dealt with.
Performance and pretense over principle.
Jesus, in this passage uses the word “hypocrite” several times, but more importantly, he spells out their hypocrisy very clearly.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Mt. 23:23-28, NIV).
Here is the real problem with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy projects that I am fully-integrated and whole. Despite inner conflicts and insecurities, hypocrites try to present a wholesome image. The Pharisees failed to acknowledge the inconsistencies in their own hearts. They styled themselves as masters of the faith and the model adherents to the law. Yet, they were simultaneously seeking to break the law in trying to kill Jesus, scheming for his demise, not to mention their daily mistreatment of the people. They were unable to see the way that they had trampled the weightier principles of love, justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Proselytism and Paradox over Presence.
This matter is closely related to the previous one. Yet, here the emphasis is on the long-term effects of hypocrisy. There are two passages that are most significant. Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Mt. 23:15). He also says, “you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Mt. 23:3-4).
More than building relationships and building people, the Pharisees were committed to gaining new followers. Jesus highlights the lengths to which they would go to gain converts, but the end result was a new generation of more unbearable, hypocritical, self-absorbed Pharisees. Not disciples—proselytes. This unhealthy, imbalanced attitude would germinate and manifest in more imbalanced and unhealthy adherents. The Pharisees were not interested in developing disciples who could think critically and solve problems in the context of faith in God. Instead they sought to create blind followers who could recite the dictates that they had handed down. They failed to recognize that disciple making requires patient forbearance, love, empathy and authentic disclosure over a long period of time.
Jesus: Troublemaker and Problem-solver
Jesus was the thorn in the flesh for the Pharisees, in large part because he was the very embodiment of everything they hated. Although he demonstrated deep commitment to Judaism, he was not a blind follower of the teachings of men. In the Sermon on the Mount, he turned the popular conventions on their head, and contrasted them with God-centered, gospel-centered principles. This was terribly problematic for them, given the fact that these teachings were the very foundation of their organization, and preserving them was their primary motivation.
Jesus also demonstrated deep and abiding love and compassion for the people. His care for the people was constantly clashing with the cold indifference of the scribes and Pharisees. He cared for the people, such as feeding the five thousand, because when he looked at them “They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).
Most importantly, Jesus came as the very solution to all of our inconsistencies. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). He did not intend to pile on the restrictions so that we could prove our commitment to his group. Rather, he threw open the gates and paved the way to the Father with his own body and blood.
I think this is what makes Christmas so sweet. The greatest gift ever given, the desire of all nations, has come to us; not with flowing robes with tassels, not with puzzling pronouncements, or blind nationalism. Rather he comes to us in the simplest beauty. He came as a baby boy, born in the most humble of circumstances, so that we would all know that we are welcome—welcome into the family of God in the same way that a newborn baby is welcomed into a loving family.
My son and I were walking back to the car after leaving one of our favorite burger restaurants, and he looked up at me and out of the blue he remarked, “You know what, Dad? The Pharisees make everything hard work.” I thought about it a bit. Then I said, “You know I think you’re right.” I’m reminded that God doesn’t make things more complicated than they need to be. Jesus’ call and gift to us is a simple one. He says to us, “Come unto me, all of you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” and “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”