Have you ever noticed that Jesus engaged more with certain groups of people than with others? In the 1st century Judea, there were at least five distinct Jewish groups: the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. The record we have in the Gospels shows that Jesus engaged one of these groups far more than the others.
My interest in this question goes back to the very first time I read the Gospels in a college world religion class. The way Jesus focused on the Pharisees virtually leapt off the pages at me! He was brutal to them! And, that is putting it politely.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides (Matt. 23:16, 19, 24, 26), blind fools (Matt. 23:17), “white-washed tombs” that “appear outwardly righteous”, “but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27), and snakes, a “brood of vipers”! (Matt. 23:33)
I am not saying that Jesus didn’t engage the other groups. It’s just that he engaged one group far more than the others. Perhaps it’s because that one group engaged him more than any other.
Unlike the other groups, the Pharisees engaged often with Jesus and Jesus with them. The Pharisees are mentioned ninety eight (98) times in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospels.
The Pharisees were not friendly with Rome. They held on to the hope of the restoration of the throne of David. Unlike the Zealots, who actively opposed Roman rule to the point of violence, the Pharisees more or less ignored Rome. They devoted themselves to God and following the Law.
Unlike the Essenes, who retreated to the desert and removed themselves completely from Judean communities and life, the Pharisees remained in the community. Like Jesus, they remained engaged.
The religious views of the Pharisees were in opposition to the Sadducees on resurrection, the reality of supernatural and demonic activity and the authority of the Prophets and other writings. The Pharisees were not just devoted to ritual observances in the Temple, but in every day life.
Though some Pharisees were wealthy, they were elite primarily in their religious study and devotion. The Pharisees were more of a populist movement. Though they were popularly influential, they wielded no political influence or position. They were the religious leaders of the common people.
Thus, the Pharisees were most like Jesus, and Jesus was most aligned with them in their social orientation and religious views. “They were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more than to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albeit sincerely misguided.”
So, that brings me to the question: Why did Jesus pick on the Pharisees so much? In the remainder of this article, I will give you my current answer.
The Pharisees have represented to me all that is wrong with religion in the world. I made that assumption early on in my Christian walk based on how Jesus interacted with them and things he said to them.
In addition to calling them hypocrites, blind guides, fools, white-washed tombs, and wicked, snakes, and a brood of vipers, Jesus accused them of putting heavy loads on people (Matt. 23: 4), exalting themselves (Matt. 23:5-7), shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven in peoples’ faces (Matt. 23: 13), neglecting the more important things (justice, mercy and faithfulness) (Matt. 23: 23), being full of greed and self-indulgence (Matt. 23: 25).
Jesus likened the Pharisees to Cain killing Abel and to the killing of Zechariah between the temple and the altar. (Matt. 23: 35) Jesus finished his diatribe to the Pharisees, saying:
“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.”Matthew 23:37-38
Jesus was absolutely brutal in his assessment of them, and he didn’t shy away from telling them to their faces what he thought. No wonder they didn’t like him!
For many years, I assumed that the Pharisees were like the nonbelievers of our day. Maybe like our political leaders. They were the wicked people who denied the existence of God and denied the power of God though they might say a prayer to God when in trouble or rub a lucky rabbit’s foot and toss up a Hail Mary at the craps table.
As I have grown older in the faith, though, my views on the Pharisees have changed, and they continue to change. I see now that I have maligned the Pharisees more, perhaps, than I should have.
As I look at the five (5) main groups of Jews in the First Century Palestine, I realize now that the Pharisees were most like Jesus. They interacted with Jesus often because they walked in the same circles. The Pharisees were most like Jesus in their theology.
Yet, Jesus said, “I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers…. [who you will kill and crucify … flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town”. (Matt. 23:34) He called the Pharisees “descendants of those who murdered”, (Matt. 23:31), stoned and killed the prophets God sent to them. (Matt. 23:35)
So, why was he so harsh with them? I am reminded of this statement Jesus gave to the people who listened to him:
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”Luke 12:48
In John 1:9-10, we read of the Word who was with God in the beginning and through whom God created the heavens and the earth:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
And then John says,
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”John 1:11
God came to His own people, the people He choose out of all the nations of the earth, the people with whom God made a covenant and gave His promises. God came to them, and they didn’t recognize Him.
Just as God sent the prophets to Israel, He came to His people incarnate as a man, and they rejected Him. Of all the people in the First Century Palestine who had not sold out to the Romans or bailed out of Palestinian community like the Essenes, the Pharisees were in the best position to recognize and receive Jesus, but they didn’t.
I think about the Pharisees often because I wonder if we would be much different than they if we lived in that time. I highly doubt it. I wonder if we are much different than they now.
Yes, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, to comfort us and help us. Yet, human tendency is revealed in the Pharisees who stood and listened to Jesus speak the very words of God in the flesh!
Like the Israelites among who God manifested Himself in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, the Pharisees failed to appreciate the very presence of God in the flesh in their midst. Are we really much different than they?
I am thinking we shouldn’t be quite so harsh with the Pharisees because we have Pharisaical tendencies in our selves and within our own congregations. We shouldn’t be quite so comfortable in our “Christian walk” or so smug in our sense of knowing that we are not like them.
Jesus was so “candid” and pointed with them because they, of all people, should have known better.
We, of all people, should know better. If we stand before God, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats, and ask God, “When did we fail to recognize you?” His answer may be no different in tone for many of us than it was for the Pharisees.
I think about these things, and I am not as confident as I thought I should be. I am not as smug as I am tempted to be. I don’t feel quite as comfortable as I want to be. And that is a good thing!