Every story has to have a villain.
In The Lion King, it’s Scar. In Rocky, it’s Apollo Creed. In Catcher in the Rye, it’s adulthood and the challenges that one faces while growing up.
The Bible is no different. In the Old Testament, the villains are the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians and most of all the Babylonians.
In the New Testament, or at least the Gospels, it’s the Pharisees.
If you grew up in church you probably know the deal with the Pharisees. These are the guys who are so obsessed with the letter of the law, so morally stringent, so legalistic that they missed how God was working in and through Jesus.
Today “Pharisees” has become synonymous with legalism and generally a term we apply pejoratively to anyone with a stricter, more conservative worldview than our own.
We use it for anyone we think is trying to earn their salvation through their actions; anyone who (we assume) thinks God loves them more because of how good and moral they are.
But what if the Pharisees weren’t as bad as we think they were?
What if we have created a caricature of the Pharisees? What if our current worldview is much more similar to theirs than we realize?
In demonizing and vilifying the Pharisees it’s possible we have missed just how similar our worldview is to theirs and in doing so have missed much of what Jesus might want to say to us as well.
To start off with, it’s important to remember (or discover) that the Apostle Paul, well into his ministry, still considered himself a Pharisee. In Acts 23:6 Paul is speaking to the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council) and he says, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.”
Later on, in speaking with Agrippa, the “king” of Caesarea Maritima, Paul says in Acts 26,
4The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.
Paul doesn’t go on to suggest that he used to live like a Pharisee but now he lives in freedom or anything like that. He simply explains that the Pharisees believe in the Resurrection, but ironically persecute him for claiming Jesus is the Resurrection.
So on two separate occasions, after he became a follower of Jesus, Paul claims to be a Pharisee.
This is the man who penned most of the Epistles in the New Testament; the man who has had the biggest influence on the direction of global Christians aside from Jesus himself. And he claims to be a Pharisee.
Secondly, we should understand the historical context of the Pharisees. This means going back to the 6th century BCE and the Babylonian captivity.
The exile of the Jewish people in Babylon is a seminal moment in Jewish history and I would argue it’s the lens through which we should read the rest of the Old Testament. It was during the Babylonian captivity that most the Old Testament was compiled. Before that there were stories and letter, some written down, others simply passed down orally. But it wasn’t until the exile that these were all collected and curated and assembled into something that looks like the Old Testament we have today.
The reason the Old Testament was compiled was to answer the question “How did we get here?” After all, Israel was God’s chosen people. They had the One true God fighting our their behalf. How did it end in exile in a foreign land? Much of the Old Testament, in one form or another, addresses this question.
The primary answer to the question (although I admit this is not nearly nuanced enough) is disobedience. God promised that if Israel was faithful and obedient to him they would stay in the land and be blessed but if they disobeyed and were unfaithful, God would remove them from the land. This is the overwhelming narrative of the Old Testament: blessing follows obedience. The Babylonian exile is the result of disobedience, rebellion and sin.
Roughly 70 years after the exile, the Jews were allowed to start returning to Palestine. However, they never regained their independence. The land was always ruled by another empire above them. First, it was the Medes and the Persians, then it was Greeks, then the Seleucid Empire.
After the Seleucid Empire, there was a revolt by the Maccabees which resulted in a short-lived Hasmonean dynasty and the liberation of a few parts of Judea. However, shortly after that the Roman Empire marched in and took control of the region. But the belief that blessing follows obedience was always present. The idea that Israel was under secular rule because of sin and rebellion persisted.
So it stands to reason: if blessing follows obedience, if foreign powers controlled the area because of sin and rebellion, then all Israel had to do was live obediently to God and he would restore their kingdom.
Furthermore, the Pharisees believed in something called “universal priesthood”. In Exodus 19:5-6 God says,
5Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
In the Torah (the first five books of the Bible which contain the Law of Moses), there were some rules that only pertained to the Levites, the priestly class. But the Pharisees believed, just like God says in Exodus 19, that all Israel acted as his priests to the rest of the world.
So it stands to reason that if Israel lost their land because of rebellion, sin and disobedience and if all Israel could be thought of as a nation of priests, then they should all live up to the priestly standard set for the Levites.
As Ben Witherington explains, “Part of [the Pharisees] agenda was to try to apply to all Jews Levitical laws previously limited in application to priests. In other words, they believed in the priesthood of all believers concept, and they believed if all Jews would be observant of the laws of clean and unclean and the Sabbath and the food laws, then God would be better pleased with them, holiness would spread throughout the land, and they might even get the land back.”
The Pharisees were convinced that if everyone could simply obey the priestly laws, God would bless them. But it’s an all or nothing thing. Everyone had to live up to God’s standard in order for God to bless them.
This is what frustrated the Pharisees so much. They were upholding their end of the bargain. They were living in obedience to God. They were maintaining all the ways Israel was supposed to act differently than the world around them; namely, through dietary restrictions, ritual washing and Sabbath observance.
They weren’t the problem. It was all the sinners. It was the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the average Jews who, to quote David Neale, “represent a whole complex of behaviour that is opposed to God and his ways”. They were the ones who were keeping all of Israel from experiencing the blessing of God, including but not limited to the reestablishment of Israel as an independent nation.
To further complicate the situation, the Pharisees were worried about contagion. Not in a literal medical sense, but in the spiritual sense.
Proverbs 1:15, in speaking of the wicked says, “My son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths.”
Isaiah 52:11 says, “Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house.”
Psalm 1 starts off saying, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.”
A later Jewish tractate on Exodus 18:1 even says, “Let not a man associate with the wicked, even to bring him near to the law.”
All of this suggests that the Pharisees, while they were concerned with the holiness (or lack there off) of their fellow Jews, they were also worried that by interacting with them, they too would fall into wickedness.
This led to a situation where the Pharisees tried as hard as they could to encourage everyone to live up to the high moral standard they did, while simultaneously avoiding any real contact with wicked people, lest they themselves become impure.
When we take a more nuanced look at the Pharisees, it’s possible we see a lot more similarities than we’re comfortable with.
The Pharisees believed God blessed the obedient and cursed the rebellious. They believed the problems their nation experienced were a direct result of people living in wickedness. It doesn’t take much of a leap for us to see this paralleled in our world.
You don’t have to look too hard to find a preacher or church leader who’s claiming the problems of our nation (Canada, the United States, European countries, etc.) are a result of moral decay and wickedness.
The Pharisees also had a high moral standard. They wanted everyone to live up to the standard set for the priests, even if they themselves weren’t a priest. Another way we could put this is that the Pharisees were more concerned with external actions rather than the internal orientation of the heart.
Many of our churches today work the same way. Our moral standard isn’t necessarily ritual washing, dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance. But for many churches, those have been replaced with premarital sex or avoiding alcohol. We still tend to create checkboxes for people and base spiritual maturity on the things we avoid rather than the active presence of the fruit of the Spirit in their life.
Finally, the Pharisees believed in spiritual contagion; that the wickedness of sinful people could rub off on them. They believed that if they associated with sinners, even in an attempt to help them live more like God wants, that they were at risk of falling into wickedness themselves.
When I was in youth group as a teen, I remember our youth pastor had us play a game where one person stood up on a table and another person stood down on the floor and both people tried to pull the other person to wherever they were. So the person on the table tried to pull the person on the floor up and the vice versa.
Invariably the person on the ground always won. Even when we had the biggest, strongest kid standing on the table and the smaller, weakest kid on the ground. The lesson? It’s always easier to be pulled down than to pull others up. The real lesson? Avoid sinners. Don’t hang out with teens who don’t follow Jesus because they’re just going to pull you down.
As adults, we can still hold this view. When I was in university, I heard a story about a couple guys who would go to a strip club and hang out with the guys there. They met them where they were at rather than waiting for “those kinds of guys” to come to church. I thought that was an amazing way to incarnate the gospel and literally take it to the people who need it most. However, a lot of my classmates disagreed. They said that as Christians we shouldn’t go to strip clubs under any circumstances. They said it would only cause you to taint your Christian witness and you could just as easily build a relationship with someone in a coffee shop.
Maybe. But these kinds of guys didn’t go to coffee shops. They went to strip clubs. And they desperately needed Christians willing to come alongside them and share the good news with them.
The Pharisees believed wickedness was ruining their country and they deeply desired to see God’s blessing return. They believed in a high moral standard but were completely unwilling to help others achieve it.
When we understand who the Pharisees were and how they were motivated to see holiness return to Israel we should read Jesus’ words to them a little different. In recognizing their motivations it might cause Jesus’ indictment of them to become an indictment of us as well.