I can’t recount the number of times I have heard something along the lines of “Jesus spent time with sinners, not the Pharisees”
On almost every occasion, this statement has been used as a veiled attack against someone they disagreed with. Usually, it’s used against me.
The “Pharisee” ad hominem is, contrary to popular belief, the best way to hurt a Christian. Now before all those non-believers out there start rubbing their hands together in glee, it only hurts when it comes from other genuine believers. Indeed, that is why it hurts at all – because it’s family.
There not much worse than being misunderstood by family, to the extent that family accuse you of sharing the morality of people whom John the Immerser describes as a “brood of vipers” and whom, upon seeing Jesus cure the sick and the lame, accused him of doing by demonic power.
So you can understand why it’s not so nice to hear your fellow brothers and sisters accuse you of being a Pharisee, especially given that some of these guys were literally on their way to the lake of fire and even leading others with them.
So I write with sobriety that if you are a Christian and you are going to accuse your brothers and sisters of being like the Pharisees, you should do two important things:
- Understand that your accusation is massively serious, and;
- Do some basic research to understand why it is massively serious.
Needless to say, a lot of Christians who casually throw out “Pharisee” against people whose opinions they don’t like (or are too lazy to find biblically sound arguments to refute) may just find out that in no surprising twist of irony, the real Pharisees were the ones throwing accusation, specifically false ones against the innocent Son of God because they didn’t like him or his Father.
So what did Jesus say about the Pharisees?
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” Matthew 23:1-3 ESV
To begin with, the Pharisees had the very serious God-given responsibility of teaching and maintaining the God’s Torah, given through Moses, in the nation of Israel, the nation God himself chose to bring forth the only hope all humanity had of escaping judgment for sin and death: Messiah.
As far as responsibility goes, this was right up there and I would argue that there is nobody since, bar the apostles, who carried a greater weight of responsibility before God.
The serious crime of the Pharisees is that they did not aspire to keep the Torah themselves, according to Jesus own words, and not that keeping the Torah was itself a bad thing. Funny that – many Christians have internalised the false dichotomy of “law versus grace” which paints keeping the Torah as some kind of heinous legalism attempting to earn salvation. Since Jesus kept the Torah perfectly and had to in order to be accounted righteous according to the Torah, a bit of biblical education would not go astray for the church in this area.
And their crimes were multiplied beyond this:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Matthew 23:4 ESV
Anyone who has ever looked at the Talmud, known in Judaism as the “oral law”, might begin to piece what Jesus says here together. In Judaism, the Talmud is considered the interpretive key of the scriptural Torah and it is considered equally inspired by God.
Simply, interpreting the Torah through the Talmud makes obeying God very complex and difficult. More importantly, teaching the oral Torah as equal to the written scriptural Torah actually adds to the Torah, something God expressly forbids.
But that’s not all!
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Matthew 23:5-7 ESV
Not only were the Pharisees adding to the Torah with Talmudic interpretations, making human interpretations equal to God’s instructions (a big biblical no-no) and keeping the average Israelite bound up with complex commands instead of wholehearted devotion to God, but they were equally unconcerned about the people in their care and their own hearts and instead concerned about privilege, power, and their outer appearances.
All of this becomes evident in the following passage:
“Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Matthew 12:13-14 ESV
Imagine having a withered hand that you can’t use. Then suddenly, theirs guy comes along and miraculously heals it! Imagine the celebration as you run around excitedly telling people all about it. How would you respond when your respected community leaders turn up and start gunning for the guy who just changed your life for the much better?
That’s who many of the Pharisees were.
So the Pharisees, at least the ones who accosted Jesus, are a bit different to someone who disagrees with you on a theological issue and even more so that someone who makes a good point that you just don’t understand.
When you throw in that the Pharisees turned Jesus over to be brutally murdered because they didn’t like his liberating threat to their power base, calling someone a “Pharisee” is really just a step down from “Antichrist”.
Hey, if the shoe fits but the important question is – are you sure it fits?
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself and calling someone a “Pharisee” isn’t so bad after all?
““But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, 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.’”” Matthew 23:13, 15-39 ESV
Guess I’m not.