The Pharisee Problem

It’s easy to dismiss the Pharisees as a group of gnarled old men skulking around in corners – and indeed, that’s how I pictured them for most of my childhood.  And yet rather than vilify them or scoff at their mistakes, I think we’d be well served to see where they stumbled.  Because though every Christian wants to be like Christ, I suspect if we’re honest there are days where we have far more in common with the Pharisees.

So let’s discuss it.  The Pharisees were…

1) Self-proclaimed cultural gatekeepers. The Pharisees believed they’d cornered the market on interpretation of the holy Scriptures.  Their love of legalism and law was bound up in their belief that they were the only ones who could understand or apply Scripture correctly.  And their constant struggle with Jesus might be summed up in one sentence: “You think you’re the authority here, but we are.”  This sense that they were the only ones who correctly understood God’s word contributed both to their arrogance and to their self-importance, and Christ condemns them for placing “burdens…hard to bear…on people’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4).

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight such insistence seems hilarious; the Pharisees are defending their authority to the face of The Authority.  And yet while it’s easy to vilify the Pharisees for such self-regard, I imagine that for most Christians there’s a similar temptation to think, “I’ve got this” when it comes to the Scriptures, to assume that we have an authority of understanding or a command over certain interpretations or a knowledge of the Word. At worst, we can sometimes assume we know the mind of God better than anyone else.

The antidote to this, of course, is humility.  What the Pharisees could not do was admit that they might not have all the answers, that they too were searchers and seekers and learners.  Through God’s grace we approach the Word; through His wisdom we hope to find an understanding of it.  As Christians, keeping a humble attitude is critical.

2) Critical observers. Whenever I think of the Pharisees I picture them walking around in a throng, just watching.  In the Bible they are always watching.  They watch Jesus in the hopes that they might trap him in a question he can’t answer or condemn him for some violation of the law; they watch sinners in order to condemn them (and, it’s implied, to exalt themselves as authorities and holy men).  Jesus puts them on blast in Matt. 23:1-36 – the entire section is worth a read – and conjures a particularly vivid image: “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (23).

That comment leaves me uncomfortably aware that, most days, I have more in common with the Pharisees than with Jesus.  It’s easy to watch people.  It’s easy to shake our heads and cluck our tongues.  It’s easy to criticize them, and to say, “If that was me, I’d have…” But such an approach lacks empathy, understanding, and most of all, love.

If we must err, let us err on the side of grace.

3) Men of little imagination. I like reading about science and math.  I don’t like doing science and math, but I like reading about them.  And in fact I recently finished Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind, which details neuroscience work being done to study and assist the human brain, and discusses the potential of such work in the future. When I finished reading it, I was mostly stunned by how little I know about my own brain and my own mind.  And I was further stunned to realize that, despite the huge advancements we’ve made in technology and understanding – surely inconceivable to past generations – there’s so much science has yet to learn or discover or understand.  I am a little blip in the enormity of the universe; I understand not only that there are things I don’t know, but things that I don’t know I don’t know.

And yet the Pharisees felt that they held a complete understanding of God’s law and of how God felt and of how God would act.  They wished to be called instructor and rabbi, according to Christ, to be held up as paragons of learning and understanding.  In truth, they felt their understanding was complete.  And yet God demonstrates in His thundering monologue in Job 38-41 that only He can conceive of His plans, of what He has set in motion, of what He has accomplished and has yet to accomplish.  For time-and-space-bound mortals like us, God’s ideas and ways are literally beyond comprehension.

But the Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a thing, and couldn’t imagine that the plans of God might go so far as to include someone like Christ, like tax collectors, sinners and the motley crew of people that they so often gathered to condemn.  That lack of imagination was their failing; I do not wish it to be mine.

Humility, grace, the ability to accept our limited understanding: these three qualities seem to me to be the cure for the behavior that Christ so condemned.  As we set forward today, may we rely on those to guide the way we relate to others and the way that we think about God.


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