07 July 2014

Thoughts on the Pharisees

Perhaps the thorns, those pesky fornicators/sluts, feminists, frivorced women, messy people, etc., cross our path as a lesson in extending patient grace.  A person in rebellion is only going to get more fire for their rebellion from a Pharisee.  The Pharisee approach is akin to stripping you naked in shame and shoving their version of correction and holiness in like a cold suppository. In contrast, the Jesus approach is a warm cup of tea where the medicine is subtle and still goes down, but in a much more gracious, patient way. Sipped over time.

The Pharisee approach was more of an exercise in moral superiority.  Christ, in his blistering criticism of the Pharisees, said “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’”  Of course, it was the Pharisees who would conspire to put Jesus to death, which tends to undermine the notion that they would not have been partakers in shedding the blood of the prophets.

What Christ tended to condemn the Pharisees for was not their coldness or their tendency to shame sinners.  How could he, since Christ would often shame sinners himself?  Rather, what Christ often condemned the Pharisees for was their deluded trust in their own self-righteousness.  G. Campbell Morgan, in his book The Great Physician noted that the reason why Christ was so often extreme in his treatment of the Pharisees and other leaders was due to the fact that the cancer of sin in their lives was at a critical stage.  They were spiritually sick, just as everyone was and is.  Unlike most people, however, the Pharisees were quite unaware of the fact of their spiritual illness.

Further, Christ never really condemns the Pharisees for their teachings, nor does he undermine the legitimacy of their authority.  In his condemnation of the Pharisees, he says, quite clearly, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do…”  He also goes on to say, “They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments,” as a display of piety.  Christ acknowledged their moral authority (and their subsequent failings as well), and told people to obey their rules.  Christ never had any issue with their piety, nor would Christ ever seek to reduce or eliminate piety in general.  Christ’s problem with the Pharisees stemmed from their hypocrisy (literally “play-acting”).  Their piety and rules were simply surface-level behaviors that did not reflect the spiritual emptiness of their hearts.

The Pharisees could be harsh in their condemnations, but this is no evidence of wrongdoing.  Indeed many of God’s prophets were quite harsh when condemning people.  John the Baptist had no qualms about calling certain people, “a brood of vipers.”  Nathan was quite harsh when attempting to get David to admit his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of Uriah.  Sometimes harshness is appropriate; sometimes it is not.  Harshness is not, however, Pharisaical and Pharisaism has much more to do with hypocrisy than with the tone they took in dealing with those whom they perceived to be as morally inferior.