So when I write the word Pharisee, what is the first word that comes to your mind? Probably hypocrite, maybe legalistic, but I doubt that any of you thought about the word faithful. I have had several conversations over the last few days, some in person, some online, that prompted this post. I think the Pharisees have got a bad reputation and I want to do my part to paint them in a more positive light. Yeah, maybe I’m crazy for coming to their defense, but I don’t think they have been portrayed very accurately.
So who are these Pharisees anyway? Well they are one of several religious groups that existed during the time of Jesus. They believed in the authority of scripture. They believed in obedience to that scripture. They believed in miracles, angels, and they believed in the resurrection of the dead. In fact, if we were to compare what they believed to the teachings of Jesus, on most things they would line up. So why do we view them so negatively?
The main reason is that as we read the gospels, Jesus keeps having encounters with some of the people in this religious sect that don’t go so well. In these encounters we find them asking Jesus a lot of questions (we often interpret these as attacks, but most of the time they are not, but more on that in a later post). They ask things like “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” and “What is the greatest command?” We also often find Jesus calling the Pharisees out. Jesus says things like “you brood of vipers” and he calls them hypocrites. They just don’t seem to get along very well, and therefore we don’t like them.
But in reality, the Pharisees were one of the most respected religious groups of the day. The people looked up to them for guidance and as an example of how to follow God faithfully. In almost all of these interactions with Jesus, the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about how he interprets the Law. Sure there are times when they disagree about things. The rabbis often debated about interpretation of Scripture. And sure there were times that they were angry, and were trying to trap him, but most of the time they are debating first century rabbi style. As for Jesus, almost always when he is criticizing the Pharisees he is not condemning the whole group, but is calling out those in the group who are hypocrites. He denounces those who are teaching one thing, but not practicing it themselves. He makes an example of those who are heaping burdens on the people, making it hard for their followers to be obedient, while not fulfilling the call to love their neighbor.
Notice that he is not criticizing them for what they believe. Theologically, he is in agreement with the Pharisees almost always. He even tells the people in Matthew 23:2-3 that “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” I can’t imagine that Jesus would not tell the people to obey the Pharisees if what they were teaching was incorrect.
And surely, not every Pharisee was a hypocrite. In fact, if we examine other Jewish texts, we find that the Pharisees were very critical of the hypocrites among themselves. They even often used the same language that Jesus used. So why do we hold up the Pharisees as an example of what we shouldn’t be. Because we let the actions of a few people affect how we see the entire group. And we in the church continue to perpetuate this view because we don’t understand who the Pharisees were and what they believed.
Is it any wonder then that those outside the church view us through the actions of a few of our bad apples? I know that there are many in the church who like the majority of the Pharisees are critical of our own. But what can we do to make the watching world take notice of those who are faithful, those who are loving God and loving their neighbors, rather than the bad apples that get all the attention. Because in reality, if we don’t step up and give the world something to take notice of, we will be remembered by those in the future just as we remember the Pharisees today.
All that to say, it is okay to be a Pharisee, or a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a Methodist, or even non-denominational. What Jesus was critical of was not their religious beliefs, but the failure to act and to live out those beliefs in front of a watching world. Don’t be a hypocrite.
I know at times we all are, or at least I am hypocritical. But we can be honest about that and ask for forgiveness from those watching rather than acting like we have it all together. And we can hold each other accountable to not only be hearers of the word, but also to live out our beliefs. We can bring the love of God to a waiting and watching world. We can make it easier rather than harder for them to come to God.
What are you doing to change the perception of the watching world about who God is and what His church is about? What can you do today to make it easier for someone to come to God?