Let’s face it, everything we have seen in this series leads to this one conclusion: the Pharisees are an enigma.
Matthew tells us they are the bad guys. Just read Matthew 3, 9, 12, 15, 16, 19, 22 and especially Matthew 23; and you will conclude exactly that. After all, they were hypocrites who were only in it for their own glory. And that sentiment is not only in Matthew; it’s in Mark, Luke and John, as well.
But then we see other passages. The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is after him. They invite Jesus into their homes for a meal. They came to Jesus at night. A Pharisee was there at Jesus’ burial. Paul was/is a Pharisee. And history informs us that there were many other good things about the Pharisees. So, maybe the Pharisees weren’t so bad.
But let’s be honest. It would take a whole lot more positive stories of Pharisees and a whole lot less criticisms of the Pharisees (especially by Jesus) to make us change our mind about the Pharisees. To us, they will always be cast in a negative light.
There are many elegant cafes in Germany that offer a special coffee. It is called the “Pharisee.” It is served in a lovely cup decorated beautifully with the word, “Pharisee,” etched on its side in a stylish German script. The coffee is rich and fills the cup. To every passerby, those who are enjoying a good cup of Pharisee are simply drinking a fine coffee; but that’s not quite true. See, the “Pharisee” is half coffee and half rum! And that is what makes it a “Pharisee.” It looks fine from the outside, but inside, things aren’t as holy as they seem–and that’s a perfect picture of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.
In short, the Pharisees are an enigma. But it gets worse. Many of the things that we now understand were at the heart of pharisaical belief are things that we too hold dear. Let me quote from Scot McKnight (who is using the old comedy routine, “You might be a hillbilly if,” as his structure):
“You might be a Pharisee if…
- You believe in a combination of fate and free will.
- You believe in the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment.
- You reject elitism and favor voluntary groups over inherited positions.
- You value your traditions, but you also realize they must be reinterpreted in light of new social circumstances.
- You want to make it easier and more meaningful for people to engage in their traditions, and you are willing to discuss how to do so.
- You care about multiculturalism and maintaining group identity despite mounting pressure from cultural assimilation.
- You have been maligned over the centuries for your commitment to your traditions.
- You’ve had dinner with Jesus.”
Oh my! We are the Pharisees of our day! That alone ought to give us new eyes to see the Pharisees in the New Testament differently! Maybe we need to give the Pharisees some grace.
So, what should we do? Six takeaways as we conclude this series.
First, we should never use the word Pharisee as a slur. They were striving to live out the Scriptures in their day, and they were committed to doing so regardless of the cost. And they were doing that because they believed their Scriptures were the path to peace and hope and a relationship with God.
Second, we should never use the word “Pharisee” as a synonym for the word “legalist.” Yes, the Pharisees were uber-committed to living out God’s Word, but they were not bound by ought and obligation, but by wanting to be the type of people through whom God could work to restore his promise, to restore his land, and to restore his people. They weren’t legalists, but they were driven.
Third, the Pharisees were the “observant ones.” They held God’s Word in high, high regard. Part of our problem when we read the Gospels is that even when we are trying not to, we import all sorts of negative baggage into the word “Pharisee.” We can’t help but to see every Pharisee as a possible hypocrite, every act a Pharisee does as an opportunity to blow his own horn, and every question a Pharisee asks as a trap. But what if we are (even in some way) misreading these sections? Perhaps, we would be better served that when we see the word, “Pharisee,” we immediately read the word, “Observant,” so that we can sidestep the negative overtones and embrace what the Pharisees were trying to do in their day.
Fourth, we must see that Jesus aligned himself more closely with the Pharisees than he did with the aristocratic Sadducees. The Sadducees were rich, powerful, centered in Jerusalem, and were committed to the advancement of the status quo. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were committed to their Scriptures, were not financially well-off, were a grass-roots organization and were spread out throughout the nation. If we add the two other main political groups in first-century Israel into the mix, namely the Essenes and the Zealots (the Essenes fled into the wilderness, and the Zealots advocated violent overthrow), we can see that Jesus most closely would have aligned himself with the Pharisees (even though, to our knowledge, he never actually did that). In that day and according to those structures, while the Romans in Jerusalem were authoritative and rather tyrannical, the Sadducees were aristocratic and rich, the Pharisees were more liberal, democratic and progressive while they sought to live out the Scriptures in their day and time. This is clearly the direction Jesus leaned. That also ought to give us more sympathy for the cause of the Pharisee.
Fifth, it seems to me that Jesus’ main contention with many of the Pharisees he encountered was that, while they gave themselves whole-heartedly to the Word, they refused to give themselves to him. It wasn’t that the Pharisees, as a whole group, were evil, but that they would not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. As such, they became blind guides and hypocrites who spoke of wanting to follow God in all things, but would not follow Jesus. The Pharisees should have been the easiest to convince that the Messiah had come; but because of their hardness of heart, they refused to see the truth that was staring them in the face. This was the source of Jesus’ frustration and harsh words. The teachers of Israel, for the most part, had failed to teach the people the most basic truth, that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Sixth, in light of the previous five comments, whenever we come across a Pharisee in the gospel story, we need to allow the story to unfold in the best possible light. In other words, we need to take each case on its own. If the story quickly turns negative, then we know how we should approach the rest of the paragraph. However, if Jesus in the story engages the Pharisee in a conversation, we should not read into the account examples of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or arrogance. Instead, we can assume this Pharisee (this “observant one”) was truly seeking answers for his questions and had come to Jesus to solve them. In short, we should not judge a Pharisee before the conversation is well underway. In this, I believe, we will be following Jesus, who also did not judge the Pharisees until they refused to believe, but wanted them all to come and partake of his kingdom. In short, perhaps we need to see that the Pharisees were less bad guys, and more lost guys that needed Jesus’ redemption.
In closing, let me say again, how thankful I am for Amy-Jill Levine and Joseph Sievers’ book, The Pharisees. Their study is engaging, accessible, eye-opening, and provocative; and I highly recommend it. Anything that can help us understand the background and culture of the Gospels better and how Jesus fits into it, in my opinion, is worth its weight in gold. Now, if you excuse me, it’s time for my morning cup of Pharisee – I mean, of coffee.
By the way, this blog will take the month of August off. See you in September with a brand-new topic. Thanks for reading.