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Sympathizing with Pharisees

Pharisees--one of the major villain groups in the New Testament. Jesus had a lot of harsh words for these guys. He called them vipers, whitewashed tombs, sons of hell, and hypocrites. Yet, I can see where the Pharisees are coming from. That worries me.

Now, I’m not disagreeing with Jesus—everything he said about the Pharisees is spot on. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, confirms the Pharisees' interest in power and political influence (Ryan Nelson). The Pharisees were missing the mark.

Yet, when we look at the Pharisees through Jewish history and the Old Testament, it’s easy to see how they got themselves into this predicament. Hardly anyone sets out to be ruthless, power-hungry hypocrites, but what is that old saying? The highway to hell is paved with good intentions? Something like that. What could be the good intentions of the Pharisees?

We see God throughout the Old Testament working to preserve the Jews as a people set apart from the rest—a pathway through which He would soon send Jesus—to save the world. Jewish people were not to marry anyone but other Jews, they were not to worship other gods, they were not to eat certain foods, or foods prepared in a certain way, there were strict rules set aside for those who disobeyed the law—some seem downright horrifying—all to preserving this people--to make a way for Jesus.

The problem is, the Pharisees didn’t know Jesus was the reason. Of course, God had outright told them throughout the Old Testament through prophets, analogies, and even through His character, but the chosen people had devised their own plan for God to keep His promises and fulfill the prophecies. They picked out the parts of the word of God that supported their plan and conveniently ignored the ones that didn’t. They likely lifted lofty prayers begging God to bring the detailed plan they had constructed to fruition asap. Sound familiar? It sure resonates with me.

I recently realized I like rules. This kinda surprised me as in the past I was one who would push almost any boundary (sorry mom and dad). Now that I don’t have parents or a boss set rules up for me, I find myself making my own. I like structure, checklists, and knowing what I need to be doing to get to the goal. I bring that mindset to the Bible sometimes. I read God’s word, and I think about how to carry it out. How do we live this with consistency and do exactly what God says?

The Pharisees valued The Torah, which they considered to be both the written law of the Old Testament and the Oral Law of Moses passed down, but, they added onto this as well trying to understand how to properly carry out the law to the letter. That was how to please God, right? For example, the Torah required no work on the Sabbath, and while the scriptures were clear on that the Sabbath was a day of rest, the Pharisees, Scribes, and Teachers of the Law, had to make a clear definition of what “rest” was, so as not to offend God by working. Thus, they set out to enforce rules such as getting milk enough for one swallow, and one could carry a spoon weighing no more than one fig. As Christianity Today puts it: “It was the scribes and Pharisees who were embroiled over the discussion as to whether or not, on the Sabbath, a woman could wear a brooch, a mother could pick up her child, or a man could wear his wooden leg. These were burdens.” This is the kind of thing Jesus was speaking to when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2.27). The Pharisees were so focused on getting it right, that they missed the point and dragged everyone else down with them.

However, they couldn’t see it. The Pharisees were pouring their lives into following and obeying God’s law and outlining every detail to make sure they got it right. Their mission was to lead the people to follow God’s law and influence government to allow them to continue following God’s law, and with all the work they put into it, it is little wonder that they began to be entrapped in the power and money that came with the position. Don’t we see this happen all the time today? Politicians, entertainers, and church leaders start out with the best of intentions, but then fame and money come pouring in and the good intentions are lost in the comfort and position. Ross King speaks to what it’s like to get money and fame as a Christ-Follower in his song “The Show”:

We had good intentions, but it was no use

We couldn't be shepherds and superstars too

In order to move forward we had to choose

And who could blame us?

Can we think about the Pharisees in this way? As fellow human beings who wanted to follow God, who longed to do the right thing--to work with the government and with the church to help others to please God and keep Israel in line with the will of God--but who then, not only got it horribly wrong but got sucked into the trap of prestige and wealth which caused them to lose sight of the true goal?

By this point, they were sure—so sure they knew the truth. No one knew and followed God’s law as well as the Pharisees. Can you imagine? Working so hard all the time to follow all these rules, believing it is the key to honoring and pleasing God, being so proud of all your efforts--believing that your wealth and power is God’s blessing on you for all your righteous good works, and now working extra hard to make sure His people live with the same piety as you do.

Then Jesus enters the scene. He disrupts everything. He heals on the sabbath. Tells a man to get up and carry his mat on the Sabbath. Allows his disciples to, gasp, pick some grain from the field and eat it. . .on the Sabbath! The Pharisee spits out his one swallow of milk in disbelief. When I put myself in their position, I understand their reaction to Jesus. It seemed like he was leading people astray and encouraging God’s people to sin. It makes me a little nervous to write that out, but that is what they were thinking, and the natural response is to stop this blasphemer who is leading God’s people astray. He was going against everything they determined to be true.

However, what the Pharisees had not considered was that they had created a counterfeit standard and were imposing on the people a law that was not required by God, and took away from what God was trying to do in the lives of His people. As I look at the situation from what could have been the Pharisees' perspective, Jesus’s words to them seem harsh. However, these were powerful men who by this point were used to people groveling at their feet and showing them honor. Jesus, the son of God, spoke to them in a way they had never been spoken to before. He told them the truth perhaps in the only way they could hear it. Better to be yelled at by Jesus on Earth than to face the full force of God’s Judgment later. I do wonder how many Pharisees were humbled and left all that prestige and wealth to follow Jesus.

Then I turn back to myself, reading God’s word, studying and trying to understand how I am supposed to live out Jesus’s calling in day-to-day life. If Jesus showed up in our churches, would he shock us in a similar manner? What human traditions am I upholding in too great of importance with God’s word? Am I trying to force my own theories and plans onto God’s promises and prophecies? Is there anything I am forcing on others that will “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces?” (Jesus, Matthew 23:13).

The answer must be yes. I cannot look at myself honestly and say I am not doing these things with the same good-intentioned vigor as I have prescribed the Pharisees. I get tunnel-visioned and pick and choose scriptures that serve my agenda and dreams rather than God’s will while ignoring those that would convict me. How do we keep from falling into the same trap as the Pharisees? Here are some suggestions I’ve come up with as I try to purge hypocritical and legalistic tendencies out of my own life:

First, recognize that no person has good intentions. Now hear me out, this was a tough one for me as I tend to assume that everyone has good intentions even if the end result is disastrous. However, I had to come to terms with the fact that human nature is naturally selfish. Each person is motivated by self-preservation and promotion. I think of Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” When I read this, I think of the Pharisees. They knew the law inside and out and followed it to the point of exhaustion. Yet, Jesus had much harsher words for them than anyone else. Then I look at myself and I see that even when I think I have the best intentions and work hard to do the right thing for myself and others, no matter how hard I work to do good if I’m doing it my in own power—it is going to not only fail but be repugnant and potentially cause more harm. I speak from experience.

However, for those of us who know and have accepted Jesus, we don’t walk in our own power, and we exchange our “righteousness” for His. For me, making sure Pharisee-like tendencies stay out of my life means focusing on the walking in the Spirit, reading God’s word, praying about everything (Philippians 4:6-7), holding loosely to my own theories, and trusting that God will take care of everything in ways we could never imagine.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me to the way everlasting" (Psalm 139.23-24).

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