It is very difficult, seemingly impossible, to undo our engrained understandings. Our perception of the Pharisees is one of those things. For as long as I can remember, the word Pharisee was synonymous with hypocrisy or evil. The definition is affirmed by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “Pharisaical = self-righteous hypocrite.” I learned it in school. Pastors warn about it. But is that definition scriptural? Were the Pharisees evil, self-righteous hypocrites?
Consider how we understand these passages in Scripture:
“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’” (Matthew 23:1-3).
If they are evil, self-righteous hypocrites, why would Jesus tells his followers to listen to them and to do what they tell you to do? Sure, the last sentence warns about hypocrisy, but that sentence does not negate the instruction to do everything that Pharisees tell you to do. Is Jesus contradicting himself?
“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night” (John 19:38-39).
Both Joseph and Nicodemus were Pharisees. At great risk for their personal safety and leadership standing, the two prepared and buried the body of Jesus. The disciples were in hiding. Shouldn’t the Pharisees have been throwing a party? If Jesus and the Pharisees were diametrically opposed to each other; why does John tell us that they are disciples, what are these two men doing at the crucifixion, and why are they involved with the care of the body of Jesus?
“Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided” (Acts 23:6-7).
Jesus died and arose. Paul was called by Jesus himself to spread the gospel. How did Paul self-identify? He could have chosen many descriptors. But on the occasion of making his case before the Sanhedrin, Paul said, “I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.”
If two plus two had been put together after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and if Pharisees were the antithesis of Jesus, why would the greatest gospel missionary call himself an evil, self-righteous hypocrite?
I could go on with more examples, but the point is made. It is time to put away our former broad-brush understanding. It is time to ask, what was it about Pharisees that caused Jesus to criticize them? What was it about Pharisees that caused Jesus to tell us to do what they say and for Paul to include them in his credentials?
The key to undoing our past understanding is a subtle, but very significant shift. We must stop generalizing. We must remove the word “all” from our mindset and replace it with “some.”
There are many variations among those who are Christian, and in Jesus’ times there were variations among Pharisees. Just as today’s Christians vary in politics, social issues, and doctrinal positions, so did Pharisees.
In the next devotional we will look at why Jesus told his disciples to listen to the Pharisees and to do what they said to do. In the devotional after that, we will look at why Jesus then criticized Pharisees for not practicing what they preached.
Why is this important for those who are called to lead? In order to lead as a disciple of Jesus, we need to better understand what he is teaching us. If we are leading the next generation, loving as Jesus commanded does not allow us to broad-brush humans—not as racial or ethnic groups, not as religious groups, not as social strata, not by any other human-made division.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services