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 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 religious 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 Pharisee.
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 took 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 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 and what we can do. 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. How, then, should we live?Continue reading “What Does It Mean to Give as Alms those Things that Are Within You?”