“You Pharisee!” “I’m a recovering Pharisee.” “That’s just Pharisaical.” Have you ever heard an accusation or admission that sounded like this? I know I have. These statements are generally made in reference to how strictly someone applies the Bible. Terms often thrown out in conjunction with Pharisee are “legalist,” “ultra conservative,” “judgmental” and, well, “jerk.” These are fairly common accusations and are sometimes fitting. However, lumping “Pharisee” with these other derogatory terms can lead to a misunderstanding of what Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was actually like.
The Faults of the Pharisees:
The Gospels portray the Pharisees as having a lot of negative traits. They are pictured as elitist, arrogant, and uncaring. They were hypocrites who taught others hard truths that they were unwilling to do themselves. They had no compassion for the infirmed or those who were deemed “sinners.” They cared more about the traditions of their fathers than the actual Law of God. They cared more about getting praise from men than giving praise to God. Their deeds of righteousness: giving, prayer, and fasting, focused primarily on self aggrandizement. They made and broke their vows based on contrived technicalities. Their goal was to try and trap Jesus with their dishonest Scripture games and word plays. Simply, the Gospels do not paint a pretty picture of the Pharisees.
Jesus and the Pharisees:
The problem with the modern insult, however, is that it’s rarely used to talk about these negative traits. It’s usually used to talk about “strictness” and “legalism.” Interestingly, these are two things that the Pharisees are NOT rebuked for. In fact, at times Jesus seems to rebuke them for not being strict enough.
Remember the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most challenging sections of Scripture you will ever read. The call of the sermon is for a righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). It is to surpass their righteousness in sincerity (6:1), priority (6:33), but also in practice (5:21-48). Whether the subject is anger, insults, violence, lust, adultery, divorce, honesty, revenge, self sacrifice, or love, Jesus calls His disciples to an incredibly high standard, unparalleled by anyone, far exceeding the Pharisees.
In Matthew 15 Jesus levels a harsh rebuke at the Pharisees, not for binding the law too strictly, but for ignoring the law in favor of traditions. “Why do you transgress the commandments of God for the sake of your traditions?…by this you invalidate the word of God for the sake of tradition…In vain do they worship Me, Teaching for doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:3-9). Jesus appears to have a pretty big problem with ignoring or transgressing the law.
In Matthew 23, Jesus makes it pretty clear that His problem is not how strictly the Pharisees teach the Law, but that they ignore important parts of it. He says, “all that they [the Pharisees] tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:3-4). Later in the chapter, Jesus will say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23).
Notice several points in this passage. 1) Jesus saw some teachings of the law as more important than others. 2) The Pharisees stressed doing the less important stuff. 3) Jesus stressed doing ALL the stuff.
He didn’t rebuke the Pharisees for doing the less important parts right, but for neglecting the most important sections of Law. His problem was that they “swallowing camels” not that they “strained gnats.” Jesus ends verse 23 by saying, “these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” If it is important Jesus want you to do it. If it is less important, Jesus still wants you to do it. The Pharisees majored in minors, and Jesus wanted them to major in all of it.
Are You a Modern Pharisee?
If you pick and choose which of God’s teachings to follow, then you may be a Pharisee. If you show no compassion to the man on the street because it was his sins that got him there, then you may be a Pharisee. If you care more about looking “conservative” or “sound” than sincere devotion to God, you may be a Pharisee. If you bind beloved traditions on others, then you may be a Pharisee. If you care more about winning arguments with word traps than you do souls, you may be a Pharisee. If you expect more of others than you do of yourself, you may be a Pharisee. But, if you are strict or even “legalistic” in your adherence to divine teaching, rest assured, you are following the path of Jesus more than the Pharisees.