A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Pharisees, those religious leaders back in the first century who disliked Jesus and plotted to have Him arrested. The Pharisees are mentioned often in the gospels, and hardly ever in a good light. Jesus said a lot of harsh things about the Pharisees, often right to their faces.
But who exactly were the Pharisees? Were they really that terrible? That well-known religious history book, Wikipedia, says there were about 6,000 Pharisees during the time Jesus walked the earth, and towards the end of the first century, “Pharisaic beliefs became the foundational, liturgical, and ritualistic basis for Rabbinic Judaism."
The Pharisees were popular among common Jewish folk, compared to a different group of religious leaders, the Sadducees, who represented the priestly caste and were in many ways upper class elitists. The Pharisees resisted Greek cultural influences, while the Sadducees moved away from their Jewish roots and embraced the foreign and trendy ways of the Greeks.
Regarding religious beliefs and practices, the Pharisees were rather zealous and strict. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were progressive and modern, even to the point of denying life after death. Using today’s labels, we could say the Pharisees were conservative and the Sadducees were liberal.
Even though many unnamed Pharisees are described in the Bible as vehemently opposed to Jesus and His followers, some Pharisees are mentioned in a good light, including Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Gamaliel.
Here in the 21st century, it’s easy to look back and label all the Pharisees as a hate-filled mob masquerading as religious leaders, who did nothing but make everyone’s life miserable, in addition to causing Jesus’ crucifixion. The word “Pharisee” is often used nowadays as a pejorative term, when we want to label someone as nasty and judgmental. The word is practically a synonym for hypocrite. That’s how I used the term “Pharisee” a few weeks ago.
If we read through the gospels carefully, we notice a clear pattern in the way Jesus interacted with people. To put it in classroom terms, the Lord graded on a curve. For example, if someone was hurting — a leper, a paralyzed man, a woman about to be killed because she committed adultery — Jesus was very gentle and compassionate. Also, if a person didn’t know much about God and religion, Jesus was not harsh.
However, the more comfortable a person was, and especially if that person was educated in the Law of Moses, Jesus was a no-nonsense demanding teacher. The Pharisees were both comfortable and educated. So, Jesus did not cut them any slack. He graded on a curve, and those guys had to get every question right before Jesus would even consider giving them an “A.”
Jesus did not repeatedly get into arguments with the Pharisees because they were a bunch of hateful jerks. No, He argued with them because they knew so much about God and were so close to the correct understanding of what God wants from humanity, but refused to be open-minded toward Jesus’ message. They stubbornly clung to their own power and prestige.
The reason Jesus argued so much with the Pharisees was because He loved them. He truly desired for them to open their eyes and understand that the kingdom of God was based on forgiveness and joy and love, rather than rules and rituals and sterile traditions.
To put it in modern terms, Jesus was like a basketball coach who yells at the most talented players when they don’t try very hard, but is gentle with the lesser talented players when they give their all. Don’t forget: to those who have been given much, much will be expected. The Pharisees were given much — religious knowledge, esteemed positions in the community, and economic prosperity — therefore, much was expected of them.
Instead of looking down our noses at the Pharisees, or using them to illustrate hypocrisy, we should look at them as both an example and a warning. They loved God and were zealous in their desire to serve Him. We should emulate that. But they also were stubborn, hard-hearted, and extremely critical of anyone who did not measure up to their high religious standards. Raise your hand if that describes you. (Good thing you can’t see my hand right now.)
The Pharisees are often labeled as the bad guys of the New Testament. But that’s somewhat unfair. We can learn a lot from them, and at the same time avoid the mistakes they made.