Are You Smarter Than a Pharisee?
The Pharisees were essentially the bad guys of the New Testament. They were the Illuminati, the Klingons, the Gestapo. They were constantly at odds with Jesus, trying to trick him, embarrass him, and discredit him. It wasn't long before they had set out to have him arrested and ultimately killed. They succeeded in what they set out to do, but they also failed. They failed the God whom they they claimed to worship. They failed the people who followed them. They ultimately failed themselves.
But, the pharisees don't have to be just another sad story or a cog in the wheel of God's plan of redemption. They can certainly be more than that to us. Reallistically, we are not so different from this "brood of vipers." We struggle with the same issues. We fall into the same traps. For us, the pharisees are a great example of what not to do, if we're willing to pay attention. Let's examine some of their key failures and see if we can learn from them.
"Improving" the Law
Pop Quiz: Where did the law come from? Moses, right? Actually, no. Moses was esssentially a delivery service, like Fed Ex or UPS. The source or originator of the law was God Himself. It's clear from reading the account in Exodus that God gave the law to Moses, and yet somehow humans eventually decided that it was theirs to play with.
“And so by your own tradition, you nullify the direct commandment of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.’” (Matthew 15:6-9) NLT
It's not as if God said, "Here's a new toy. Do whatever you want with it." When they started out, I'm sure their hearts were in the right place. They probably added a law here and added a law there, thinking God must have forgotten those. Slowly they began to wrap man-made laws around the real laws, to create some margin for those who naturally had none. This seems like a caring thing to do! After all, they were just trying to help! But over time, those new laws became so intertwined with the old ones that no one could tell the difference anymore. It was all considered "the law."
Eventually, someone must have come along with no historical context for where the new laws came from, and that person decided to "create margin" himself. Ultimately the law was "improved" so much that, by the time Jesus showed up, it had completely strayed from it's original purpose. Loopholes had been added which essentially gave people a "Get out of jail free" card. Their behavior was only sin against God if they forgot to click their heels together and spin around three times afterwards. This is what Jesus was frustrated about in Matthew chapter 15.
Raising the Bar
Consider the memorable war against dancing waged by a local pastor in the 80s movie “Footloose”. While he knew dancing itself was not a sin, he was afraid that legalized dancing would ultimately lead to other things. As a teenager, I heard disparaging references to distorted guitar coming from the pulpit at a time when bands like Petra were trying to use the hard rock sound as a vehicle for the gospel. Well meaning Christians rose up against the band DC Talk due to their song “Jesus Freak”. I doubt if any of them had actually read the words of the song. These things did not conform to the man made rules for what is and isn’t acceptable to God. As a result, people were stepping in the way of God reaching people in new ways.
So why do we do want the law to be more restrictive? Is it possible that our focus is on performance (following the rules) rather than relationship? God wants us to know Him--to be in relationship with Him. He wants us to help guide others into a relationship with Him as well. Focusing purely on the rules means we're not focusing on Him relationally and we're robbing ourselves of the opportunity to know the God of the universe intimately. Trying to earn God's love is not a path that leads anywhere good. The Pharisees were certainly guilty of this, condemning Jesus for "breaking the law" because He healed people on the sabbath, which they considered work. Handwashing requirements (up to the elbow) had been introduced along the way that were not found in scripture, and the Pharisees sought to strictly enforce these requirements.
They clearly believed that if we do everything just right then God will find us acceptable. The New Testament is clear that God’s acceptance isn’t based on our performance. What we do matters to God for a lot of reasons, but not because He’s trying to decide if we measure up. God’s acceptance is given freely to us when we choose to follow Him. Performance-based Christianity is in a way like rejecting the gift of grace. It’s as if we’ve said, “No thanks, God. I’ll gain your acceptance on my own.” But the God who actually made up the rules doesn't need our help to refine (or redefine) them. What he wants is for us to humble ourselves, take a backseat, and follow the God of the Universe wherever it is that He's leading.
The "No Win Scenario"
If you really put effort into following every detail of the law given to Moses, you'll eventually figure out that it simply can't be done successfully. Paul had concluded as much In Romans chapter 3.
"Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. As the Scriptures say, "No one is righteous— not even one."
... For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are..." (Romans 3:9-10,20 NLT).
Here Paul presents us with the Biblical representation of the "No Win Scenario." If the law was our only means of becoming right with God, there would literally be no hope for any of us. For the Pharisees, this was their perception of reality. Everything revolved around the law. The law was a test which could never be passed. Even though the prophets did their best to point them to a coming savior, the Pharisees were simply unable to see past their dotted "i"s and crossed "t"s. The Pharisaical solution to the no-win-scenario, similar to the one ultimately employed to beat the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek II, was to "reprogram the conditions of the test." They cheated, by altering the law to make it something they could work with. They made it possible to win (see Matthew 15:1-6 for an example).
In our world, we do this by either ignoring God completely and making up our own rules or confining God to a little box and only letting him out when it's convenient for us. We ignore God's call to make painful or difficult changes. We ignore entire sections of scripture that say things that make us uncomfortable. While God may be the author of the work, we are the "Co-Editors in Chief" with veto authority (or at least we think so). We do our best to rig the test so that we can win without a savior, because we don't want to be indebted. We don't want to be held accountable. We want whatever we do to be fine.
But, as we "refine the law," if we're wise we'll recognize that we've only revised our copy of it--the one we're using. God still has his version, and God is the one in charge of passing judgment. Finally we see that all of our law-refining efforts ultimately amount to nothing. While our friends and family may be okay according to our version, our version is not the one to which they will be held accountable. Our rejection of the existence of God does not mean He is not there. And unfortunately, our dismissal of hell in no way invalidates it as a very real potential destination.
It's All About Market Share
As we read the New Testament, we discover that the Pharisees were much, much more interested in keeping power than they were about doing the right thing. They didn't want to be inconvenienced by loss of "market share."
"Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. 'What are we going to do?' they asked each other. 'This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.'" (John 11:47-48 NLT)
Jesus was not conforming to their standards. In fact, he was directly competing against them and he was beginning to win. They were convinced that God was on their side simply by virtue of who they were. It did not occur to them to diligently focus on being on God's side. Otherwise the miraculous signs He had shown them would have given them pause. Market share was so important to them that they were willing to lie and paint Jesus as an enemy of Caesar's in order to gain Roman support for His execution.
For us, this boils down to putting our wants and desires ahead of God's call and God's direction for our lives. This is what Elijah did when he ran in fear from Jezebel after the tremendous victory at Mount Carmel. God has a plan for us, and it may be in direct opposition to our plan for ourselves. When faced with this uncomfortable situation, who wins? We instinctively run from accountability and authority, when those things are important to our safety and security. Without these things, there is no guardrail to protect us from our own stupidity. God put them in place for a reason. His plan is always the right thing for us, even though it may not always be the most comfortable.
Here are references for the word "pharisee" through the four gospels. It's interesting to look at their repeated attempts to discredit Jesus by using man-made laws against Him.
3:7 John the Baptist - "You brood of vipers!"
5:20 Jesus - "unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!"
9:11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?" (Also Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30)
9:34 But the Pharisees said, "He can cast out demons because he is empowered by the prince of demons."
12:2 But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, "Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath." (Also Mark 2:24, Luke 6:2)
12:10 The Pharisees asked Jesus, "Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?" (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)
His answer: "If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn't you work to pull it out? Of course you would." (Also Luke 14:5)
12:24 But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, "No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons."
12:38 One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority."
15:1-2 Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, "Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat." (Also Mark 7:5)
16:1 One day the Pharisees and Sadducee came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. (Also Mark 8:11)
19:3 Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: "Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (Also Mark 10:2)
21:38 Jesus - "But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, 'Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let's kill him and get the estate for ourselves!'"
21:45-46 When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them—they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds...
22:16-17 "Teacher," they said, "we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don't play favorites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Also Mark 12:14)
22:35-36 One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: "Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?"
22:41-42 Then, surrounded by the Pharisees, Jesus asked them a question: "What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?"
23:2-3 Jesus - "The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach."
27:63-64 (after crucifixion) They told him, "Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: 'After three days I will rise from the dead.' So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day..."
3:6 At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus. (Luke 6:11)
5:21 But the Pharisees and teachers of religious law said to themselves, "Who does he think he is? That's blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!"
5:33 One day some people said to Jesus, "John the Baptist's disciples fast and pray regularly, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are your disciples always eating and drinking?"
7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She's a sinner!"
11:38 His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom.
11:53-54 As Jesus was leaving, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees became hostile and tried to provoke him with many questions. They wanted to trap him into saying something they could use against him.
13:31 At that time some Pharisees said to him, "Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!"
15:2 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
16:14 The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him.
17:20 One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, "When will the Kingdom of God come?"
19:39 But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, "Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!"
1:24 Then the Pharisees who had been sent asked him, "If you aren't the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?"
7:45-49 When the Temple guards returned without having arrested Jesus, the leading priests and Pharisees demanded, "Why didn't you bring him in? ... Have you been led astray, too? ... Is there a single one of us rulers or Pharisees who believes in him? This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God's curse is on them!"
8:3-5 They put her in front of the crowd. "Teacher," they said to Jesus, "this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?"
8:13 The Pharisees replied, "You are making those claims about yourself! Such testimony is not valid."
9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath."
9:40 Some Pharisees who were standing nearby heard him and asked, "Are you saying we're blind?"
11:47-48 Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council* together. "What are we going to do?" they asked each other. "This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple* and our nation."
11:57 Meanwhile, the leading priests and Pharisees had publicly ordered that anyone seeing Jesus must report it immediately so they could arrest him.
18:3 The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him...