“Don't wanna be a Pharisee,
Don't wanna be a Pharisee,
'Cause they're not fair you see
I just wanna be a sheep.”
Any Sunday school kid knows that the Pharisees are the bad guys. When you sing songs like the above, or read the Bible stories, nobody wants to be a Pharisee.
When you’re a kid, you know you’re not one of those grumbling men in the robes, so you know you’re not a Pharisee. Then you get older and read the gospels again, and it becomes apparent that the Pharisees weren’t your classic cartoon bad guy.
In theory, they were doing the right thing: they were deeply religious, never missed worship and soberly kept the law down to the letter. Problem was, they had allowed this pursuit of perfection to make them intolerant, judgmental and ungracious to others.
We’re not like that… are we?
When you think about it, it’s worryingly easy to become a Pharisee. Here are some of the characteristics of Pharisees.
They follow all the rules
"And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" - so that they might accuse Him" (Matthew Chapter 12 verse 10).
Pharisees never miss church, they take notice who’s absent from small group, and they think that if others knew as much about the Bible as them, they would be better off.
Too easily, we call ourselves “committed Christians” with a little pride, knowing that we pray so much more regularly than most people, or whisper about how that person hasn’t been coming to church enough. As in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying side by side:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
The twist is that the Pharisee kept all the rules, but he wasn’t justified before God because his legalism had taken over. Following God’s holy law is a response to God’s love, not the precedent for it.
They lack compassion on others
The Pharisees said to Jesus’ disciples, "Why is your teacher eating with sinners?" (Matthew Chapter 9 verse 11).
Pharisees regularly objected to Jesus hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors and “sinners”. They are the kind of people who say “you shouldn’t hang around with people like that”.
Pharisees look down on people that are different to them, whether it’s politics, race, sexuality, lifestyle or other factors. They are more interested in what they are against rather than what they are for. They are so against abortion that they will lecture an emotional woman who chose to have one. They post articles blasting others for their politics. They talk more than they listen.
When we are more interested in ourselves than in others, we’re in danger of becoming Pharisees.
There is a disconnect between who they are and what they believe
"Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy" (Luke Chapter 12 verse 1).
Matthew 23 showcases in length the hypocrisy of the Pharisees:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach…
The Pharisees couldn’t see, or chose to ignore, the gap between their godly beliefs and their actions. This hypocrisy is destructive not only because it blocked their understanding of themselves, but it also deterred others. Pharisees blocked others from the kingdom of God, and so many former Christians today are people who were burned by people in the church preaching one thing and doing another.
If hypocrisy is the litmus test, we are all Pharisees. Who can honestly say they always walk the walk? What’s key here is remembering the grace we’ve received, first and foremost. We’re not “good people”, and that’s why Jesus dying for our sake was so amazing.
Instead of bragging about ourselves, we should brag about what God has done for us broken humans.
JD Greear commented, “The Holy Spirit did not go into such detail about the Pharisees in the New Testament just so we could understand a group unique to the first century. Pharisaism is a poisonous weed that grows in every garden of orthodox religion. Pharisaism is every bit the threat to the orthodox today that it was then.”
Are we in danger of being Pharisees, then? One disturbing warning is given by CS Lewis. His devil character Screwtape says about Pharisees in the closing of his Screwtape Proposes a Toast:
Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and an almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything [God] really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany…
All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “Religion” ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.
Pharisees aren’t restricted to the cliché of rosaries and long faces. They can come in all sorts of forms. The problem is their hypocrisy, judgmental outlook and concern for rules.
We all have times where we can be cold-hearted like Pharisees. Let’s remember that it’s not our performance, but the grace of God, that saves any of us, and let’s be sure to extend this mercy to others too.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She has a background in editing and publishing, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html