Why We Don’t Like Pharisees

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

We don’t like Pharisees. We don’t want to be Pharisees. But what exactly was a Pharisee?

A purist. Separated from the world for the sake of purity.

The ancient practice of temple Judaism had grown worldly. The prophets had long decried how pilgrims and priests just went through the motions. And the “Jewish” monarchy hardly maintained even the pretense of religion.

The Pharisees sought purity of heart and soul, in the home and in small communities. By scrupulous observance of devotional practices. They read the Scriptures assiduously, with faith and reverence. They cared about people’s souls. They despised idolatry and corruption.

So what’s not to like? Why do we dislike the Pharisees? How about three reasons.

1. They sought devotional integrity, instead of empty temple ritual. But in doing so, they fell into the same trap that they tried so zealously to escape.

At the Temple, no one really undergoes a conversion of heart! they thought. Christ replied: Guess what, Pharisees? You go through the motions with your pieties also. Without real conversion of heart.

2. This trap of empty external-ity turned the Pharisees into outrageous hypocrites. Their ‘system’ failed to take one very important thing into account: the unfathomable depth of mankind’s inveterate moral weakness.

Now, people called Jesus ‘rabbi.’ He practiced devotional prayer and worship, like the Pharisees did. He frequented the synagogue, like they did. Christ interacted with many Pharisees.

I’m not calling Jesus a Pharisee. But there are certain walks-and-talks-like-a-duck similarities.

Except: The Pharisees responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by a. judging it in others, and b. pretending it didn’t exist in themselves.

Meanwhile, the Lord Jesus responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by…

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

3. The Pharisees’ hypocrisy made them mean. When your religion insists on something impossible, it becomes an instrument of human oppression; it leads to false judgments.

The Pharisees insisted on scrupulous observance of their practices, all based on the Torah. By this means, you could become perfect. Or so the system claimed.

But it didn’t work. Still doesn’t.

We need mercy from above. We need grace from God–grace that we didn’t, and can’t, ‘earn.’ We need to humble ourselves and face the truth about our miserable sinfulness.

That’s the only path to perfection. And it’s the only way to avoid judging others in a pharisaical manner.

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