The Pharisees have had a lot of undeserved bad press. They have been victims of a merciless historical spin machine. They have become everyone’s whipping boy. They are one of the most misunderstood groups I’ve ever known.
It’s hard for us to conceive that the Pharisees were actually the liberals of Jesus’ day. (!) They were a group of laypeople who took the holiness laws designed for the priests, and tried to dumb them down to make them easier for the average person to obey. In the process, they got accused by other Jewish groups as being too permissive. The guys at Qumran accused the Pharisees of preaching “smooth things” (halaqot), a pun on the Pharisees’ word for code-of-conduct (halakot). Likewise, the same strictness that kept the Sadducees from believing in life after death because they couldn’t find it in the Torah, also led them to condemn the Pharisees for being too lax.
Even Jesus criticizes the Pharisees, not for being too strict, but for leaving themselves too many loopholes to evade the clear word of God. Jesus tells his audience to do what the Pharisees teach, but not what they practice (Matt 23:2). They weasel out of oaths (Matt 23:16-19). They weasel out of care for their parents (Mark 7:10-13). They meticulously tithe, but neglect justice, mercy, and faith (Matt 23:23); Jesus responds that he wants to see both committed giving and committed living. The Pharisees split with the Sadducees over the Pharisees’ practice of adding unwritten commands as a fence around God’s law, to keep that law from being broken, but in the process, they ended up elevating those human-made rules above God’s word itself (Mark 7:9).
Yes, the Pharisees were elitists. But so were the Sadducees. And Qumran was even more elitist. Yet amazingly, in disputes between these parties (such as how to celebrate the Jewish holidays), the common people in Jesus’ day sided with…the Pharisees! Does that sound like they were mean moral monsters? Only John the Baptist and Jesus led movements that were open to all who were willing to come and follow.
In many ways, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish group. There is NO recorded memory of any role of the Pharisees in Jesus’ execution. We read in Acts 15 that there were Pharisees who were following Jesus, but not Sadducees or people from Qumran. The harsh words we hear from Jesus about them in Matthew 23 are not anti-Semitic; they are part of an in-house debate over who is the more faithful Torah-teacher. We often reserve our harshest criticism for those who are most like us.
So this Easter, or wherever we may find them as we preach the Gospel story, let’s quit bashing the Pharisees. They were not the moral monsters that common misperception has made them to be.
NEXT WEEK: “LESTES – THIEF OR TERRORIST?”
Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?