In the previous post I quoted a warning from Jesus about the Pharisees. Later in that same post I mentioned Pharisaism and the Pharisees and drew a subtle (?) comparison between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the moralists of our day. Often one thought leads to another and I began to see more and more similarities.
But first, who were the Pharisees? Actually there were a number of religious parties that Jesus clashed with, but the Pharisees and the Scribes were two that were often lumped together and often overlapped.
The Scribes were probably originally just what the name implies: copyists of the Holy Scriptures (our Old Testament). This was in itself an honorable profession dating back at least to the time of Ezra (ca. 457 BC). Because of their writing skills and their knowledge of Scripture they were highly regarded as scholars, teachers and lawyers (Ezra 7:6, 10). They also became known as guardians of the Jewish tradition.
The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism whose origins are not clear. Some believe they were to be identified with the Hasidim who were connected with the Maccabean leaders of Israel (ca. 160 BC). The apostle Paul and the historian Josephus both claimed to have been Pharisees. This party was the traditionalist party, holding to a strict interpretation of the Scriptures and a strict observance of its rules as interpreted by them.
The two groups overlapped of course. Not all Scribes were of the Pharisaic party and not all Pharisees were Scribes, but they are often seen together in the Gospels (Matthew 5:20; 12:38). Sometimes we see references to “the Scribes of the Pharisees,” (Mark 2:16), apparently persons of this party who were also of this profession.
These people were apparently highly regarded among the common people and had an influence that went way beyond their numbers. They were a strong influence for morality in their day. Yet we find Jesus constantly warning others about them.
“Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees …” (Matthew 16:6; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1).
“Watch out for the Scribes …” (Mark 12:38; Luke 20:46).
“The Scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in Moses’ seat. Everything they tell you, do and keep, but do not do according to their works …” (Matthew 23:2).
He acknowledges their “righteousness,” but holds His followers to a higher standard: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, there’s no way you’ll enter the Kingdom of the Heavens!” (Matthew 5:20).
He seems to be referring to them and holding them up as a bad example when He speaks of “the hypocrites” in Matthew 6:2, 5, 16.
He not only warns others about them; what is striking is His direct confrontations with them. There were many, although two of the most direct and harsh are found in Luke 11:37-52 and Matthew 23:13-29. Though there are similarities between these two diatribes, they are different, spoken at different times and places and probably to different groups.
In Luke’s report, Jesus says “Woe to you!” six times, sometimes aiming at the Pharisees, sometimes at the Scribes (Luke uses the word “lawyers”). Once He calls them “fools” (11:40).
In Matthew’s account, He says “Woe to you!” seven times. He calls them “hypocrites” six times. He calls them “blind guides” twice, “blind” three times, “stupid.” They are “the murderers of the prophets,” a “nest of snakes” (He apparently got that expression from John the Baptist, 3:7).
This doesn’t sound like “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” Jesus hung around with sinners, tax collectors, winos and whores, yet we never read of Him talking to them this way. What was it about these good religious people that aroused his ire?
Well, the most often mentioned fault is that mentioned above: hypocrisy.
“They say and they don’t do! They bind up heavy loads and put them on the peoples’ shoulders, but they don’t want to lift one finger” (Matthew 23:3, 4).
“You clean the outside of the cup and the dish while inside they’re full of greed and self indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
“You’re like white washed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones and all sorts of uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
They were concerned about an outward show of righteousness, but not with inward reality. They cared about appearances, about being recognized by others for their good deeds and piety. They liked to be honored as the religious leaders (they thought) they were. The root of hypocrisy is pride.
“They like to walk around in long robes and they love greetings at the market place and the best seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets” (Mark 12:38, 39; Luke 20:46).
And they were greedy. Luke tells us right out that the Pharisees were “money lovers” (16:14).
Jesus said they “devour widows houses” (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). Widows were at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, the weakest of the weak. The Old Testament law commanded provision to be made for them. We’re not told how these religious con men swindled the widows out of everything they had, but apparently that’s what they did.
They had devised elaborate interpretations of the Law to allow them to be free of taking care of their aged parents (Matthew 7:9-13).
Pride. Greed. Hypocrisy. Many more incidents could be cited, but that’s enough. Yet these people were regarded as, and regarded themselves as, paragons of virtue. They wrung their hands over the sins of the common people. They were meticulous about the laws of purity, about tithing. They condemned sexual misbehavior and those involved in it. The stories in John 8:1-11 and Luke 7:36-50 bear this out.
And they were absolutely certain that they had a corner of God. Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee who “went up in the Temple to pray … and the Pharisee stood there and prayed to himself, ‘God I thank you that I’m not like other people, swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice a week, I tithe everything I get’” (Luke 18:11, 12).
Dare we compare these moralists of Jesus’ day with the moralists of our own? Are the self-appointed guardians of the morals of America the Pharisees of our day?
Are the televangelists who lament the sexual sins of our nation while asking “seed faith” money from their viewers so that they can live luxuriously?
What about the talking heads, secular, political and religious who constantly bemoan the moral morass of America? Those who constantly harp against homosexuality, abortion, illegal aliens, or whatever? It is not always clear whether they are attacking the sins or the sinners.
Why is greed seldom, if ever, mentioned by those who love to catalog the sins of their neighbors?
Perhaps it’s time for us to separate ourselves, not from ordinary sinners, but from the “righteous,” moralistic Pharisees of our day.
I did not relate the complete story that Jesus told as recorded in Luke 18:9-14, mentioned above.
“And He also told this parable to some who were confident in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” After relating how the Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t sinful like others, he added “’or even like this tax collector.’” Then the story continues, “... but the tax collector stood at a distance and wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying ‘God be merciful to me the sinner!’ I tell you this one went to his house justified rather than the other. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Is it perhaps time that we stopped harping on the sins of others and recognized our own? Is it perhaps time that we who claim the name of Christ humbled ourselves?