I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the Pharisees in Jesus’s day and who the Pharisees of our day might be. Jesus was pretty tough on them as a group. It seems that maybe we should pay attention.
They were religious leaders, of course. The Oxford online dictionary defines a Pharisee as “a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity”. The word, Pharisee, has become synonymous with a self-righteous person or a hypocrite.
I think it’s easy to write them off as a particularly unenlightened, archaic clique of religious leaders who completely missed the boat when God became man and walked among them. I also think it’s dangerous for us to dismiss them so offhandedly.
Pharisees weren’t the only religious leaders in the First Century. The Sadducees were the other “party” of religious leaders in that time. Like Democrats and Republicans today, the two groups were in conflict with each other over politics and theology.
The Sadducees were more elite and upper class than the Pharisees. They were also more conservative, at least in the sense of recognizing only the written Torah, rejecting the “oral Torah” (along with the Prophets and the idea of resurrection of the dead).
The Pharisees were more trusted by common folks. While the Sadducees incorporated the influence of Greek culture and thought, the Pharisees opposed it, remaining more “pure”, emphasizing Mosaic Law alone.
The word, Pharisee, means “set apart, separated”. Though we know of no Sadducees who followed Jesus, more than a few Pharisees were believers, including Nicodemus (John 3:2), Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38), an unknown number of “those of the party of the Pharisees who believed” (Acts 15:5), and Paul, of course.
The Pharisees were the trusted religious leaders of the common people, and they had the most interaction with Jesus, perhaps, because they interacted more with the common people than did the Sadducees. The Sadducees were more politically aligned with the Romans and enjoyed more privilege and position.
The Pharisees, as I have come to see them, are a lot like many of our religious leaders today. They were earnest in their effort to remain true to the Mosaic teachings, to honor God and to live lives devoted to God.
They were also misguided, of course. They missed the proverbial forest for the trees. God became man and walked among them, and they didn’t recognize Him. They clung too tightly to their ideas of who the Messiah would be and what he would be like – they clung too tightly to their doctrines – to recognize the Messiah when he showed up.
In this tendency to cling to traditional ideas, to be dogmatic about doctrine, to focus too much on particulars and, thereby, miss the big picture, I see possible parallels to the Christian world of today. I don’t claim to know exactly how that parallel applies, but I think we need to take that possibility seriously.
Some scholars say that Jesus grew up in the tradition of the Pharisees and had more in common with them than the Sadducees (and the Essenes and Zealots who were the other Jewish groups of the time). To that extent, I think we err dangerously to assume that the Pharisees were wholly unlike us today.
I think the Pharisees are much more like us than we care to admit or consider. Most devout believers are more in danger of being a “Pharisee” than a heathen, for instance. If we are going to fall into error, it will likely be on the side of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees weren’t necessarily wrong (or weren’t all wrong) in their theology. It was more in the application. They focused on the letter of the Law, but they failed to understand its “spirit”. They focused more on how they appeared to others than how God saw them.
They knew their Scripture. They knew that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, from the house of David, so they rejected Jesus because he was from Nazareth. They “knew” nothing good came from Nazareth (more of a cultural reality), but they failed to keep an open mind. If they had, they would have discovered that Jesus did come from David’s line and had ties to Bethlehem.
Dogmatic thinking that “locks in” certain interpretations of Scripture and the expectations that grow out them is as much a danger for us today as it was for the Pharisees in the First Century.
The Pharisees were very much concerned about making sure people behaved in certain ways that were acceptable and were quick to denounce actions that were out of step. They also tried hard to conform their own actions to those expectations. In doing this, they were focusing on outward appearances.
Jesus challenged them in their assumptions, their traditions, their dogmatic adherence to their theology and doctrines and in their practices:
“And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.'” Luke 11:39-42 ES
This reminds me of the faith and works tension that we wrestle with as modern Christians. We should know, better than the First Century Pharisees did, that we are not saved by our outward actions. We are not saved by merit, by our own efforts. We are saved by grace alone, which we perceive by faith.
Yet, we have the tension that faith without works is dead. A tree is known by its fruit. We also care deeply how other people perceive us. We have no less pressure to conform our actions to expectations than they did. How, then, should we live?
Though we ought to know better, we have just as much pressure to “cleanse the outside”, while neglecting “the inside” as the Pharisees did. Just because we know that our salvation comes by grace, and not by “works”, doesn’t mean that are exempt from the error of the Pharisees.
We “know” how Christians are supposed to act, and we get pretty good at maintaining those appearances, even as turmoil, doubt, and sin whirl within. The trend toward “authenticity” is reaction to that tendency. For many, however, “authenticity” results in walking away from the faith altogether.
Others see the disconnection. They see the ethical standards Christians espouse and promote, and they see the hypocrisy or Christians who fail to take those standards seriously and fail to live up to them. The failure of the actions of Christians (the fruit) to line up with the standards of God (the tree), is justification used by many to reject Jesus and the Church.
We also have the additional danger of coasting on our faith in the grace God gives us. “Once saved, always saved” is a commonly used axiom that leads many to neglect what is going on inside (and outside) the cup!
Jesus does not tell the Pharisees to ignore the outside (their actions). He doesn’t chide them for tithing. He chides them for neglecting justice and the love of God. These result in actions also, but they come from a different “place”.
The real key to all of this, I believe, is the instruction to “give as alms those things that are within”. Jesus says, if you “do” that, “Behold, everything is clean for you!”
I am reminded of the saying in Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Isn’t “doing” justice an action? An outside behavior?
Yes, and no. Doing justice requires some understanding and internalization of what justice is. Anyone can tithe. That is an action that needs no connection whatsoever to an inner reality. Doing justice requires intimacy with the God of justice.
When we think about justice in the modern west, we might think about crime and punishment. We have criminal codes that spell out the sentences, fines and penalties for failing to follow the law.
Justice, in the biblical sense, is not an eye for an eye that can be exacted with little or no personal investment or inner connection with God. Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5:38-42)
Jesus wasn’t substituting a new set of rules for old rules. He was challenging people to consider the reality beyond which the law is only a shadow. (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1)
He did the same thing with the commandments: thou shall not murder (Matt. 5:21-25), and thou shall not commit adultery (Matt. 5:27-30); and divorce (Math. 5:31-32, and taking oaths (Matt. 5:33-37) and even love itself (Matt. 5:43-48).
Jesus turned all the rules inward. It’s not enough to refrain from killing; if you harbor hatred in your heart toward people, you have committed murder. It’s not enough to refrain from committing the act of adultery; if you have lusted after a woman, you have committed adultery in your heart.
While we tend to focus on the outward actions of others, we don’t know what is going on inside another person’s heart. But God does. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes, they were judging by appearances.
We also tend to focus on our own outward actions, conforming our own behavior to rules and expectations. That’s the easy part, and focusing only on outward actions completely misses the reality that God sees. God sees our innermost being; He knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts; He knows the words we are about to speak before we even say them.
We do no good cleaning the outside of the cup when the inside is a mess. At best, we might fool others, but we don’t fool God. We also might fool ourselves in the process into thinking we are ok, when we are not.
When Jesus gave up his life, he gave it freely for us so that we could have His life. When we accept the grace God gives us, we must let go of our striving to clean the outside of our cups. God is looking for us to give Him access to the inside.
When Jesus said, “Give as alms those things that are within”, I believe He was asking us to give ourselves to God – completely. We do that but ceasing to focus on maintaining appearances. We do that by being authentic with God who already knows us better than we know ourselves.
We do that by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting in the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Not because we are earning any brownie points by doing so, but because they are people, like us, made in the image of God. Because God loves us and loves them, and we are in Christ and the Holy Spirit is in us.
We don’t need to be authentic with each other so much as we need to be authentic with God. We can hide nothing from Him anyway. All we can do is throw ourselves completely and wholly on His mercy and allow Him to have His way in us.
Jesus was not saying that the outside of the cup doesn’t need cleaning. He was saying that we have to start with the inside. What good is a cup that is clean on the outside if it is dirty on the inside?
If we give as alms the things on the inside – if we give ourselves to God and to His purposes – the outside will take care of itself. If we truly give ourselves to God, God will do His work in us so that we change on the inside and eventually begin to reflect that change on the outside as God works in us.
One of the most compelling evidences of the existence of God and of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people happens when God changes someone from the inside out. We see it most dramatically when someone turns completely from a life without God to a life with God in childlike faith. The change can be dramatic and completely authentic.
Many of us have been through such a change, but not all of us. Some of us have been Christians for as long as we can remember. This does not mean a person cannot be authentically Christian without a dramatic life change.
It is easy, however, to settle into learned behaviors, rather than living authentically in relation to God. This is true even for people who once had a dramatic life change, a born again experience.