True confession. I often root for the bad guy. I always pull for the monster in every Frankenstein movie (Isn’t it clear that if there is a bad guy here, it is the grave-robbing Doctor Frankenstein?). And in all the Jurassic Park movies, you will always find me pulling for the dinosaurs to have a good meal and the sooner into the movie, the better. I so wanted the Creature from the Black Lagoon to win; and any time The Mummy shows up, please know I will be in his corner. I feel that Loki is basically misunderstood; and while he is extremely mischievous (and definitely broken—childhood trauma, no doubt)), I can’t wish him harm.  And I cheered when Verbal walked out of the police station in The Usual Suspects. Even if he isn’t Keyser Soze, he is pretty cool. And to be perfectly honest and open, anytime I watch Titanic, I pull for the iceberg (anything to be done with Jack and Rose!). I know this seems out of place, but I do like seeing the underdog taste victory, even if the underdog is a bad dog. 

The Pharisees have received a largely bad rap throughout church history, mostly because of Jesus’ comments in Matthew 23. For instance, if I asked 20 people to give one word that best describes the Pharisees, at least 19 of them would say, “hypocrite.” And if I were to ask for a second word to describe the Pharisees, 19 people would say, “legalistic.” But are either one of these statements true? Recent scholarship has asked us to give the Pharisees a second look to see if maybe we might be mischaracterizing them (either a little or a lot).  And in so doing, recent scholarship has made the “bad guy” Pharisees, a possible underdog worthy of my potential support. And when it comes to Matthew 23, five things jump out at me to say maybe recent scholarship has a case. See, the differences in the gospel accounts in regards to Matthew 23 give us a hint that maybe we are not seeing the whole picture. Let me enumerate those differences.

First, neither Mark nor John has Jesus confronting the Pharisees during Holy Week. In the narrative of Matthew, that confrontation plays a huge role, but for the other gospel authors it doesn’t. Here’s the question: Why does Matthew’s gospel make such a big deal about this?

Second, in Mark 12:38-40 Jesus makes some similarly harsh comments; and these comments were made during Holy Week. He says they like to walk around “in flowing robes” (akin to what Jesus says in Matthew 23:5 about the Pharisees: “Everything they do is done for people to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.”). He also says, “they like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (akin to what Jesus says in Matthew 23:7 about the Pharisees: they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others”). And Jesus says they love to “have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (akin to what Jesus says in Matthew 23:6 about the Pharisees: they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues”). But in Mark these comments are NOT made against the Pharisees. They are made against the teachers of the law. Now, if A=B and B=C, then A=C (it’s the only math theorem I know!). Here’s the question: Why does Mark prefer the less specific designation, “the teachers of the law,” to categorize Jesus’ opponents here? (Remember, the teachers of the law were not a separate group, but a title that applied to both Pharisees and scribes). A second question: Why does Luke follow Mark and not Matthew and also say that these comments were made to the teachers of the law and not the Pharisees? (You can see that because Luke follows Mark’s text and includes Mark 12:40: They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”). Matthew’s gospel deviates from Mark and chooses to ignore this verse. 

Third, Luke has a section (Luke 11:37-52) that is parallel to Matthew 23, but the setting is vastly different. Instead of happening in Holy Week, it happens before. Instead of happening in the temple courts, it happens in the house of a Pharisee. Instead of seeing the Pharisees as Jesus’ opponents who are out to trap him, Luke has a Pharisee invite Jesus to his house for a meal. In short, instead of this Pharisee being cast as a bad guy right from verse 37, Luke portrays the Pharisee in a neutral light (in Second temple Judaism, you don’t invite people you hate over for dinner) until he can’t get past the fact that Jesus did not wash (ceremonially) before the meal. When the Pharisee rebuffed Jesus for not doing so, Jesus goes all Matthew 23 on him (it almost sounds like Jesus was so hopeful that he found another good Pharisee and was making good headway with him only to have his hopes dashed because the Pharisee could not get past Jesus’ disregard for the traditions of the elders). Interestingly, Jesus issues three woes against the Pharisees (all paralleled in Matthew 23) and calls them foolish once (see Luke 11:39-53). But after the third woe, the experts of the law interrupt Jesus and throw their Pharisee brothers under the bus saying (11:45): “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” That interruption allows Jesus to turn his attention off of the Pharisees and onto the experts in the law. And so, Jesus proclaims three woes to them (mostly paralleled in Jesus’ comments to the Pharisees in Matthew 23). Now, we know that the gospel authors rearranged content and put things into different contexts to suit their purposes, so that is not the problem; but the question, “Why did Luke do this?” still needs an answer. Here’s the question: Did Mark and Luke see the terms “teachers of the law,” “Pharisee,” and “experts in the law” as being somewhat synonymous?

Fourth, but closely related, in Matthew 22 Jesus asks the Pharisees (42): “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” In the parallel passage in Mark 12, Jesus has the same conversation, but his comments are directed towards the teachers of the law (not the Pharisees) and to the crowd that had gathered. In the other parallel passage in Luke 20, Jesus seems to be responding to the teachers of the law, although he was speaking to the crowd. The question remains: In the gospels, are the terms “teachers of the law,” “Pharisee,” and “experts in the law” used almost synonymously? 

Fifth, in John’s gospel Jesus’ opponents are often characterized by the word “Jews” without more specific classification. The Pharisees are mentioned, but the bag is mixed. Nicodemus is a good Pharisee (Jn. 3:1-21 7:50-52). Other Pharisees are bad. They hold positions of power and operate with other authorities in opposition to Jesus (7:32, 45; 9:16, 39-41; 11:47, 57; 12:42; 18:3). John 12:42-43 is particularly damning: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” And it is only John who places the Pharisees at the scene of the arrest of Jesus (accompanied by some of the chief priests). However, John loves to paint with a larger brush and, more times than not, wants to hold all the Jewish leaders together as equally responsible for Jesus’ death. Here’s the question: Why do the gospels emphasize different things at different times and in such different ways? 

And that raises another question: Does the intended audience for each of the gospels have something to do with how and how much the Pharisees are cast as the bad guys? Mark was the first gospel and was written to Gentiles (see Mark 7:3 where Mark feels the need to explain Jewish customs to his Gentile audience). While Mark does not completely skip over the Pharisees, he prefers a more generic term (teachers of the law) so that his readers won’t be caught up in unnecessary discussions about intramural Jewish politics. Luke (and don’t forget Acts) has a mixed picture of the Pharisees. Luke often paints the Pharisees in a good light. Jesus eats in the homes of Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 14:1). He is warned by some Pharisees that Herod was seeking to kill him (13:31). Paul acknowledges himself to be a Pharisee (23:6-9; 26:5). On the other hand, Luke often sees the Pharisees as opposing Jesus and calls them hypocrites (11:38-41), having distorted values (11:42), pride (11:43) and self-righteousness (18:9-14). Luke also adds in a new slight: The Pharisees loved money (16:14). Stephen Westerholm in the volume, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by Green, McKnight and Marshall), argues that the “Pharisees serve Luke’s purpose in providing a foil for Jesus’ attitude towards sinners (particularly in the parable of the prodigal son which is peculiar to Luke’s gospel.”). John would rather focus on “the Jews” or, more specifically, “the Jewish leaders” as the main opponents of Jesus (since the Pharisees are often seen as those in power or operating with those who are). 

But Matthew was written for an audience that was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles who were living in a community saturated with a strong Jewish presence. This Jewish proximity was causing tension for the church and even some persecution (5:10-12; 10:17-18, etc.). Matthew needed to show that “the Jews” who were persecuting his church were of the same ilk as those Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ persecution and death and that true faith revealed itself in the heart. Back to Westerholm: 

“Great emphasis in Matthew is placed on the differences to be observed between the piety of those who follow Jesus and that of the [unbelieving] Jews who do not; The latter is portrayed as superficial, hypocritical and ostentations (5:20; 6:1-18). Pharisees, the epitome of such religiosity (23:4-7), are always hostile to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, and the attention paid to their teaching witnesses to its relevance for Matthew’s readers.” 

In other words, Matthew uses the story of those who opposed Jesus to speak to his church in his day and to speak powerfully to their situation. And Matthew focuses on the Pharisees in Matthew 23 to show where such opposition will lead. Listen to the (near) end of Matthew 23 (33-36): 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.” 

To whom is Jesus referring here? He is speaking, in part, of members of Matthew’s congregation that will be persecuted by the “Pharisees” of Matthew’s day.  And for such crimes, they will not escape judgment. But it is even worse than that. Jesus ends (really the end) the sermon with a plea for Jerusalem to repent (37-39):

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say,  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

And in the very next chapter, Jesus details the destruction of Jerusalem in horrible detail. The point is clear: By rejecting Jesus and his representatives, God’s wrath will be poured out on Jerusalem. But the responsibility for that tragedy lies squarely on the shoulders of those who feign religion, who promote their own self-righteousness, who have hard hearts and who refuse to see the truth. There are many names that could be used to describe these people, but for Matthew the best label is to call them Pharisees. And honestly, because it was so self-willed, it is nearly impossible to root for them (at least, in the Gospel of Matthew). More next week, but remember, I’m rooting for you.