The dynamic between Jesus and the Pharisees has been a point of difficulty and trouble with me. My gut reaction is to look at the Pharisees with such a condescending point of view. That viewpoint is not without merit. They did after all crucify the Son of God. They did reject the Messiah they had been anticipating for generations. They did use the law of God as a weapon of oppression and domination against the people the Law was given to protect.
I know, that doesn’t really help my position. Here’s the thing. That’s not the whole story. Jesus had some harsh things to say to the Pharisees. He calls them a brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, and dishes that are clean on the outside but unwashed on the inside. That is harsh.
Let’s take a look at the impetus behind these statements of Christ and the character is the Pharisees as we see them in the Gospel.
The depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels is a caricature. The picture we see of the religious leaders in the Gospels is not representative of every Pharisee. It may have been a large percentage or even a majority, but we should be cautious about painting a group of people – any group of people – with such a wide sweeping brush. We have examples of Pharisees like Nicodemus or the council in Acts 6 who were willing to stop and listen to reason even if they were in a state of disagreement. But we see some of the most outrageous characteristics of this group of men exaggerated and emboldened so that God can reveal through Christ what the new covenant with his people would look like.
I believe their heart was in the right place. At least initially, the objective of the Pharisees was to protect the Law of God and to protect the people against breaking the Law. It was a good-hearted effort to be the people God had called them to be. How frequently to our good intentions lead us down a path of error? They knew God was a holy God expecting a holy people. So they created safeguards around the Law to keep the people from breaking the actual Law. However, over time, they failed to separate what God had commanded from the safeguards. The pieces they had added to the Law were not God’s commands, but they bound them on the people as if they were.
The Pharisees missed the point. This is what Jesus emphasizes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. They knew the Law, they kept the Law, they recited the Law but they had completely ignored the heart of God and the desire he had for his people. God wasn’t after right action with wrong motives. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with this reality and forces them to decide between two options. On the one hand, they could acknowledge the heart of God they had missed and change their ways. On the other hand, they could ignore the Messiah and pursue the status quo. Change, after all, is difficult, painful, and frequently requires me to own up to mistakes I might have made.
They knew the Law, but they were filled with something else. They were completely invested in the Law of God, but they remain unchanged by it. Jesus is begging to bring them along, but they are unwilling. In Matthew 12:43-45 Jesus points out this very truth. You will be filled by something. If you are not filled by the truth of God, Satan will gladly fill the void with something else.
This my fear. I am a Pharisee. It is hard for me to see the way I get entrenched in traditions. Traditions are important! They are vital to the advancement of our history. They are beautiful expressions of our heritage, but we have to be honest with ourselves and with our people. Next week, we will look at the role tradition plays in our faith.
Joshua Fowler is the minister at the Goodwood Blvd. church of Christ in Baton Rouge, LA