In Search of a Pharisee

We often hear “Don’t be a Pharisee”, “Don’t judge”, “Don’t speak in Christianese”, “Don’t be a hater”, and “If you’re a Christian, you should always show love.”Pharisee

Good ideas, all of them. But our definition of a Pharisee, or hate, or judging, or love, isn’t always clear, and there’s the rub. If we can’t agree on what something is, then we can hardly agree on how to either avoid it, or how to do it.

And truthfully, I feel like some folks keep moving the linguistic goal post whenever they feel like it. So you might say, “Love your neighbor”, and I’d say, “Sure, gladly.”

But maybe your definition of love means complete agreement or approval, and maybe I can’t in good conscience approve of everything my neighbor says and does. Then you can pull the goal post back and say, “Sorry! You didn’t show love like I think you should, so you didn’t make the end zone.”

Which is, to my thinking, one reason many Christians are accused of
being unloving.

But it’s not the only reason, sad to say. Because really, can anyone deny that self-righteousness, judgmental attitudes, unhelpful clichés, hatred, and lack of love, are all problems in the modern church?

So to get some clarity on these terms, I’d like to look at each of them in this 5-part “In Search Of” Series. Here’s how it will post:

Today: “In Search of a Pharisee”
Tuesday: In Search of Judging”
Wednesday: “In Search of Christianese”
Thursday” “In Search of Hate”
Friday: “In Search of Love”

I hope, by the time we finish, we’ll have better working definitions of these concepts, along with better ideas of what each of them requires of us. Today, let’s start with a title which gets thrown around pretty freely when the subjects of Christianity and truth get brought up.

The Pharisee

Several years ago I heard a pastor introduce his guest speaker, who was going to teach the congregation about meditation techniques, inner visualization, and the power of religious icons. Knowing that many in his flock would be uncomfortable with this, the pastor said, “Now we’ll see how many Pharisees we have here tonight by the reaction our guest speaker gets!”

That was clever. Any objections to questionable teaching would be written off as the rants of a Pharisee which, I’m pretty sure, guaranteed that nobody with honest concerns spoke up.

But is anyone who values sound doctrine really a Pharisee? If not, what exactly is a Pharisee, and what’s the difference between him and someone who simply cares about truth?

Who They Were

No one provoked Jesus’ wrath like these guys, so whatever they were, we want none of it.

Yet what they were, at first glance, doesn’t seem so awful. Probably formed after the Babylonian Exile, Pharisees weren’t duly appointed priests, but rather a sect of Jewish leaders getting their name from a word meaning “distinct” or “separate”, both of which are accurate descriptors of their lifestyle.

They considered themselves the true interpreters of Moses Law, a consideration shared by a high percentage of the Jewish population, among whom they wielded tremendous influence.

Josephus estimates about 6000 of them operated in Jesus’ time, and their profile among the people was strong (John 7:48) competing for prominence with sects like the Sadducees and the Essenes.

As self-appointed interpreters of the Law, they added reams of traditions and applications to it, and that alone puts a question mark over their heads.

But that’s not what got the Lord so riled. It was their self-righteous attitude, double standards, and lopsided priorities that He railed against. These, in a nutshell, are the seven qualities that made them awful:

  1. Hypocrisy – they said one thing and did another (Matthew 23: 3)
  2. Vanity – they did good works for the sake of recognition (Matthew 23: 5)
  3. Arrogance – they craved positions of prominence among the people
    (Matthew 23: 6-7)
  4. Rigidity – they kept people from believing they can enter the kingdom (Matthew 23: 13)
  5. Religiosity – they valued ceremonial observances above human need and fair treatment (Matthew 23: 14-19)
  6. Imbalance – they nit-picked about secondary ceremonial issues while neglecting weightier matters like justice, mercy,
    and compassion (Matthew 23: 23)
  7. Defilement – they paid attention to outer appearance while neglecting the inner man (Matthew 23 25-26)

So Who Qualifies?

To be a true Pharisee, it’s not enough to simply believe some things are right while others are wrong. Nor is it enough to be concerned, even angry, about wrongdoing or wrong doctrine.

You must be a hypocrite, preaching a high standard to others while secretly falling short of it yourself. Then you have to look down on most people, considering yourself holier than others.

You’ve also got to place higher value on religious tradition than human need, and you have to covet position and power. And, of course, you have to make a very public show of your good works.

Unless these things are evident in your life – a superior attitude, a double standard, indifference to others, and a penchant for showing off – then sorry, you didn’t make the cut. You’re simply not a Pharisee.

If you judge what’s preached or taught by comparing it to scripture, and consider that a responsibility all Christians have, then you don’t qualify. But if you look for minor flaws in someone’s message, and relish pointing them out, then you’re in.

If you pursue holiness and expect other believers to do the same, you’re not Pharisee material. But if you scrutinize another’s personal habits then pounce because he likes the wrong rock groups or watches the wrong tv shows, then you’re on the right track. (Especially if your own entertainment choices
are questionable.)

If you exhort a fellow believer to look at a significant error in his life, you’re more of a good friend than a good Pharisee. But if you talk about that same brother behind his back, questioning his integrity and elevating yourself above him, then your long white robe is waiting.

Christians who value truth, and react when it’s disregarded, aren’t Pharisees.

Christians who’ve appointed themselves critics and auditors of other believers, ignoring essentials and obsessing over secondary issues, deserve the title.

And as the Serenity Prayer puts it so succinctly, God grant us the wisdom to know the difference.

Tomorrow we’ll be look at what does – and does not – constitute the judging Jesus warned against.

Comments

John Kirkwood | Jan 18, 2016

A very needed article indeed. Joe, it would be great, however, if you'd also address the Galatian. The neo-Galatian who goes around suspending the Christian cards of those that they find who fall short in discipleship terms. In our day, the Galatian is much more prominent than the Pharisee.

Tom | Jan 18, 2016

Joe. I think you ought to write a small book on these concerns. You really do a nice job of bringing in proper scriptural examples to "relevance" of today's church.

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