A Deeper Look At Jesus and The Pharisees

Who are the Pharisees you know?

I know you have a few in mind, as I do: those overly-legalistic, err-on-the-side-of-brimstone-over-grace, bean-counting cranky folks who seem as though they could not possibly ever have met Jesus.  They are critical.  They are unkind.  They can’t see the forest for the trees, and they have about them the smugness that comes of thinking they understand Scripture in a way that no one else does or ever could – without ever seeing their own flaws.

We know exactly what sort of people Pharisees are.  They like to catch people out on technicalities.  They are cruel and uncaring about anything but their own self-righteousness.  They would leave an ox in a ditch to suffer and die rather than pull it out to save its life on the Sabbath because they prize their own adherence to the law over anything else, including God.  They are hypocrites who, in their zeal for legalism, tithe spices but neglect “the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).

I am not a fan of these people.  Jesus wasn’t either.

Some of His most scathing lectures and comments are reserved for the Pharisees, including the blistering polemic in Matthew 23 where He refers to them as hypocrites, blind guides, and whitewashed tombs.  He had no problem in calling out Pharisaical hypocrisy and self-righteousness, nor chiding the Pharisees for the places their legalism had led them astray.

The church, since that time, has engaged in what I like to call “Pharisee-hunting.”

Many contemporary believers I know, and I am included, are wary of legalism (without ever imagining that we could ever engage in it ourselves).  In a blog post, Philip Yancey once surmised that modern Christian “legalists” were the products of grace-heavy, legalism-light congregations, and those who erred on the side of grace-giving were the products of profoundly legalistic congregations.  If that is the case, perhaps we’re living in an age of believers rebelling against the legalistic traditions from whence they came.  Either way, among modern believers you’ll almost always find someone ready to denounce a Pharisee, often with the feeling that doing so puts us firmly alongside Christ.

But we neglect that Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was deeper and more complex than that.

Jesus willingly ate with the Pharisees, and even if those dinners were at times contentious and full of people trying to test Him, He chose to eat there.  We know He did not lack company otherwise.  He could have eaten alone or with His disciples.  And yet He chose to attend.  He chose to engage with them, seeing their questions as what they were – a trap and a test – and yet attempting to go beyond in His answers to illustrate the principles of the kingdom of God.  He expressed concern about their ignorance.

Perhaps most telling is the presence of Nicodemus in Scripture: a Pharisee who sat on the Sanhedrin.  He was part and parcel of the group that Jesus denounced so strongly, and yet came to Jesus at night with a seemingly earnest desire to question Him.  He reappears in John 7:51, attempting to discourage the Sanhedrin from condemning Jesus without first hearing from Him “to determine what He has done.”   And his final appearance in Scripture is alongside Joseph of Arimathea, when he provides seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes and helps to bury Christ.

Was Nicodemus a believer?  The Bible does not give us a definitive answer, but from the presentation of Nicodemus in Scripture and his later behavior and actions, I believe it likely.  And more than anything, Nicodemus represents a human side of the Pharisees: a man who was willing to listen, who did not flinch back from correction, who earnestly sought to hear from Jesus.  And Jesus took him seriously.  Jesus answered his questions.  Though he reprimanded Nicodemus for his incredulity and his ignorance, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand.

This is what we miss when we talk about Pharisees.  Yes, Jesus condemned their hypocrisy and their behavior.  But He didn’t give up on them.  He engaged with them.  He ate with them and indeed endured humiliation and no end of irritation to get through to them.  He did so certainly for the benefit of those watching, but I also believe He did it for the Pharisees as well: for men like Nicodemus, whose hearts were not hardened.

We must be careful not to forget this.  In our zeal to go Pharisee-hunting, we often miss a) our own Pharisaical tendencies, and b) that Pharisees, too, need Christ and are beloved of God.  It’s easy to condemn and criticize; it’s much harder to do the work of engaging with people that we find irritating or troublesome.  Jesus did both, and if we are going to emulate His example, we need to do it in all things – because you never know when, among a group of Pharisees, a Nicodemus might be listening and learning.




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